"...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

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

This unsettling little story--which definitely belongs in the “Odd Stuff That's Impossible to Categorize” file--appeared in the “Louisville Courier-Journal” on July 30, 1876:

One of my neighbors has had a very mysterious experience lately.  He went out to plow about sunrise a short time since, and he saw, as he thought, one of his neighbors walking among his wheat shocks, thinking at the same time that he acted rather queer by keeping his back toward him all the time, though quite near; but he paid no particular attention to him, only casting an occasional glance to see what he was at.  On getting to the far side of the field, he turned his team and started back, and again saw the man very plainly; he was still walking about without any apparent object in view, but, on getting near enough to clearly note the movements of the figure, it was observed to take three long strides, throw up its hands, and then float in the air near the surface of the earth for a distance of fifteen or twenty feet, and suddenly vanish into nothingness.  Such is the tale my neighbor tells me, and he entirely believes it.  He is neither superstitious nor timid; is about twenty years old, and of undoubted courage and coolness.  Mr. Starr, the name of the gentleman who saw the vision, will convince anyone who will talk to him of his own honest belief in the apparition.  On one of two occasions he was within twenty feet of it, and it could not possibly have been an optical illusion.

Monday, January 29, 2024

The Burial of William the Conqueror: A Comedy of Errors

William the Conqueror is one of those historical figures who need no introduction.  Thanks to his famous victory at Hastings in 1066, he dramatically changed England’s future.  (Whether he changed it for good or ill is a topic for another time.)

However, what this post is about is not William’s life, but his death.  William likely expected to have a dignified end, surrounded by grieving family and respectful courtiers.  This would be followed by the solemn, but impressive funeral due a king of his fame and achievements.

Things didn't quite go according to plan.  In fact, this grim man left this earth in true Strange Company style, as the center of a grisly comedy skit.

In his later years, William had become quite obese, which bothered him.  He was particularly self-conscious about his round, protruding belly.   In 1087, in an effort to lose a few pounds, the fifty-nine year old king resorted to secluding himself in his castle at Rouen, where he took to his bed--a sort of medieval fat farm.  When the French king Philip I heard of this, he laughed, “The king of England is lying-in at Rouen, and keeps his bed, like a woman after her delivery!"

When this mockery reached William’s ears, he was infuriated.  He leaped from his bed, yelled for a horse, and set out to teach Philip a lesson in manners by invading the French town of Mantes.

While he watched Mantes burn, disaster struck him.  His horse, perhaps frightened by the flames, suddenly leaped in the air, throwing the king against his pommel.  The blow was violent enough to rupture William’s internal organs.

William was carried from Mantes back to Rouen, but the medical science of the day could do nothing for him.  As his condition deteriorated, William, looking back on the many acts of wholesale cruelty he had perpetrated, naturally grew increasingly fearful of what awaited him in the afterlife.  He confessed his sins, asked for forgiveness, and begged everyone to pray for him.  He had gifts sent to the local churches and to the poor, “so that what I amassed through evil deeds may be assigned to the holy uses of good men."  Some of his wealth also went to the clergymen of Mantes, so the churches he had destroyed could be rebuilt.  According to the historian Orderic Vitalis, William moaned on his deathbed, "I treated the native inhabitants of the kingdom with unreasonable severity, cruelly oppressed high and low, unjustly disinherited many, and caused the death of thousands by starvation and war, especially in Yorkshire....In mad fury I descended on the English of the north like a raging lion, and ordered that their homes and crops with all their equipment and furnishings should be burnt at once and their great flocks and herds of sheep and cattle slaughtered everywhere. So I chastised a great multitude of men and women with the lash of starvation and, alas! was the cruel murderer of many thousands, both young and old, of this fair people."  William did not have an easy death, either physically or mentally.

Two prominent members of William’s family were missing from the scene: his eldest son Robert had allied himself with Philip I, and the king’s half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux was in prison for treason.  When William was asked to forgive them, the suffering king, probably feeling that he was past caring about such earthly matters, agreed.  Odo was released from custody, and Robert was given the duchy of Normandy.  William’s second son, William Rufus, was given control of England, and immediately left Rouen to take on his new responsibilities across the Channel.  (William’s youngest son, Henry, was given only five thousand pounds in silver, but he had small reason to complain.  When William Rufus died soon after becoming England’s king--in one of history’s most suspicious “hunting accidents”--Henry succeeded him.)

William’s death on September 9, 1087 was the cue for a mad rush to the exits.  The aristocracy in attendance, naturally anxious to protect their properties, fled before the dead king was even cold.  Orderic wrote that the remaining household servants “seized the arms, vessels, clothing, linen, and all the royal furnishings, and hurried away leaving the king's body almost naked on the floor of the house."

It had been decided that William would be buried in Caen, in the church of St. Stephen in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes.  (William had founded this church in penance for marrying his cousin Matilda of Flanders, in defiance of the Pope’s objections.)  However, with all his nearest and dearest having done a bunk, there was no one around to make the necessary arrangements.  Finally, an ordinary knight--out of his own pocket--had the body transported to Caen.  Unfortunately, a fire broke out in the town just as the abbots and monks were coming to meet the bier.  Everyone rushed away to deal with the blaze, leaving the monks to conduct the funeral service on their own.

Afterward, in the middle of William’s eulogy, it was interrupted by a heckler.  A man stepped forward angrily declaring that the church was built on land that William, as duke, had seized from his father.  He added, "Therefore I lay claim to this land, and openly demand it, forbidding in God's name that the body of this robber be covered by earth that is mine or buried in my inheritance."  In order for the rest of the funeral to take place in peace, the man was given sixty shillings on the spot.  (Henry later gave him a hundred pounds.)

The funeral festivities were just beginning.  The disconcerted mourners realized that the stone sarcophagus made for William’s burial was way too small.  As by then his corpse was, shall we say, well past its sell-by date, it was decided that there was nothing to be done but cram the body in and hope for the best.

Unfortunately for everyone in attendance, the result was that (in Orderic’s words) "the swollen bowels burst, and an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the by-standers and the whole crowd."  The burial rites were cut very short.

After this debacle, William’s remains were left alone until 1522, when a French cardinal, apparently out of mere idle curiosity, had his tomb opened.  The spectators got their eyeful, and the coffin was reinterred.  Forty years later, a Calvinist mob ransacked the tomb, in the belief that it contained treasures.  When the ghouls realized their mistake, in a fit of pique they scattered the bones and left.  Whatever jumbled parts of William that could be found were put in a new monument, but that was destroyed during the French Revolution, and his remains thrown in the River Orne.

All that is left of William is a thigh bone, which now lies under a marble slab in front of the altar in the Abbaye-aux-Hommes.  Hopefully this last bit of him will forever rest in peace.  However, considering William’s track record, I wouldn’t count on it.

The site of William's sort-of burial, via Wikipedia

Friday, January 26, 2024

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

Welcome to this week's Link Dump!

After you've finished reading, feel free to join the staffers in the Strange Company HQ bowling alley.

(Alfred Mainzer)

A look at medieval peasant rebellions.

A burglary?  Or a pre-planned murder?

The mysterious murder of a Japanese family.

A brief history of the Fairy Investigation Society.

Pigs gone wild!

Solving a medieval murder mystery.

The sort of thing that happens when you explode 60 tons of dynamite.

A privateer in action.

The Russian famine of 1921.

A brief history of bobby pins.

Solving a baby's medical mystery.

The countess and the cello player.

A romance in a Nazi death camp.

Aberdeen's most haunted pub.

A fifth-century Hun warlord not named Attila.

The glory days when Alaska had a cat mayor.

How to go on a microadventure.

Stone Age chewing gum.

When did the Greek gods go away?

Yet another historical hoax.

History's most prolific mathematician was also probably history's weirdest mathematician.

The life of a successful 15th century politician.

There's something weird on the surface of the Moon.

The "suicide jockeys" of WWII.

The mystery of the Kashmir Princess crash.

Coin-counting corpses.

The true story behind "Masters of the Air."

Good news!  Here's your big chance to own Winston Churchill's dentures!

High Strangeness in an Indian village.

The Hideous Hodag!

In which we learn that Martin Luther King Jr. was a Trekkie.

The "vanishing star" mystery and UFOs.

A continent that never existed.

If you ever visit Pompeii, don't take home any souvenirs.

A night at Mrs. Astor's ball.

Were there prehistoric humans in Antarctica?

That's it for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a royal burial gone very, very wrong.  In the meantime, here's baby goats in slo-mo, which is an oddly hypnotic sight.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

It never pays to turn a cemetery into a playground.  The permanent residents don’t like it.  As an example, I present this story from the “Shreveport Journal,” August 29, 1897:

MADRAS India, July 10 — The best ghost story that has come to light in years has just reached here from Ooty, a small town in the presidency of Madras, and it is of such a character that it has been deemed worthy of discussion by some members of the London Society of Psychical Research. 

The authenticity of the happenings are vouched for by numerous persons who actually observed them, and to clinch the matter two of the spectators have made their statements in the form of affidavits. These latter are Dr. James L Kelly, the surgeon in charge of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, Madras, and Capt. W. H. Burchell, a retired sea captain living in the town of Ootacamund. 

The victim of the ghost was a native young lady, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. According to her native friends she was possessed with devils, but some English people attributed the strange happenings about her to the ghostly supernatural. 

It seems that with a friend who was about to be married the young lady paid a casual visit one evening to the Roman Catholic cemetery in Ooty. Three days previous to their visiting the graveyard a man had committed suicide and was buried there. Being light-hearted and not over-scrupulous the young people made the graveyard their playground for that evening and both of them carried their mischievous temperament so far as to dance and jump over the grave of the man who had committed suicide, and brought matters to a climax by even digging out the cross that was imbedded in the grave. 

When they returned home they fell ill. They were restless, looked at every one with fiery eyes, and became so uncontrollable that they had to be safeguarded within the precincts of a room. They would tear their clothes, and if women crossed their way in the house or held them they would be sent reeling to the ground, but if men constrained them from doing anything hurtful or injurious they would partially yield to their threats. 

A native woman who held some reputation as a devil-driver was called in and prepared a dish of cut fowl, flowers, and limes, which they consumed, and having faith in the treatment seemingly recovered. The elder of the two was married shortly after and went away to live with her husband.

Several days after this event there were curious happenings in the home of the unmarried girl, and this is where the ghostly doings come in. From 6 to 12 at night, showers of stones seemed to drop out of the sky into the house, smashing many panes of glass and breaking articles of furniture, but injuring none of the inmates. 

A police station is located near the house, and the matter was reported there as it was first presumed to the work of mischievous persons. A dozen constables and a number of unofficial watchers were accordingly detailed to surround the house and detect if possible the throwers of the stones.

This precaution had no effect whatever. Each night the stones crushed against the windows, splintering them to tiny pieces. The girl who was supposed to be possessed of devils seemed in her normal health except for the natural nervousness of living in a house subject to such queer attacks. But it was noticed that in whatever room she happened to be, the windows of that apartment suffered more than any of the others. What increased the mystery was that on the third night great panes of glass were splintered without being struck by stones. This happened several times and in portions of the house which could not be reached by stones thrown from the outside. 

Later on this same night, when the stones began to fly again, a large piece of granite after passing through a pane of glass fell at the girl’s feet while she was on her way to her bedroom. This seemed to unnerve her and while lying on her cot she fell into a deep swoon. The chief constable who was summoned found her breathless, speechless, and stiff. A physician who was also called succeeded in restoring her after much trouble but she fell into another faint soon after. She was again restored but fainted again and this happened several times during the night. 

It was noticed that while she was in a swoon not a glass was broken in the house, but that as soon as she was restored the smashing began again. 

The next morning she seemed to have recovered and was sitting in a chair conversing with several visitors when she again swooned. Then she became very restless and five men could barely hold her in the chair. Once she succeeded in throwing all five to the floor, but she was seized again and carried to her room where she was placed in her cot and held down. A couple of minutes later a broad pane of glass in the room door fell to the ground and was smashed to atoms. This glass was not facing the street or compound but was the centre glass of the room and the latter was the centre room of the house. 

The constables who were again called in decided to try the superstitious cure of the country and sent for a Malayali devil-driver. It was some time before he could be found, and in the meantime the girl kept crying out that she wanted to go to the graveyard. Finally the Malayali devil-driver came into the room, and as soon as he approached her cot the young lady who all the while had had her eyes closed opened them and made an attempt to pounce upon him. The Malayali spoke to her in a loud and angry tone in Malayalam and while he was speaking the girl had her eyes fixed on him. The Malayali, named Kunjini Gandhu, at once began writing something on a long slip of paper and then prepared with ghee, pepper, etc. a kind of cigarette. He first rolled the long slip of paper and placed it in her hair. She stretched out her hand to take it away, but the man quickly knotted it with her hair. The young lady then commenced to spit on him.  When the Malayali, with a malacca cane which he claimed had power, pointed it to her, and boldly going before her asked her in Malayalam to spit on him. She did not attempt this again. 

Via Newspapers.com

After igniting the tip of the cigarette affair, the devil-driver gave it to her brother and told him to hold it under her nostrils so that she would inhale the smoke. Then he left and the girl became calm, probably from the effects of the narcotics used by the Malayali in making the mysterious cigarette.

At intervals after that, the glass breaking occurred and the girl became violent but the smoke of the cigarette invariably calmed her. Finally her father decided to move her to Goodalun, thirty miles from Ooty. After her departure the stone throwing and window smashing in the house ceased and nothing of the kind has happened in her new home in Goodalun. There is no doubt a psychological explanation of these queer occurrences but it is a mooted question whether the scientists can locate it.  R. CHEEVER HAMILTON.

Monday, January 22, 2024

Guest Post: "C" of the British Secret Service

 [John Bellen, known in the feline blogosphere for "I Have Three Cats," has recently published on Amazon "Inductions Dangerous," a collection of short stories centered around the adventures of a fictional British Intelligence agent during the 1920s.  I so enjoyed the book that I asked him to provide a relevant real-life story for this blog.  He kindly responded with this following account about a man who played an important role in the development of Britain's modern Secret Service.  Take it away, John!]

I have sometimes read that the British Secret Service traces its descent back to Elizabethan times. Alas, such an association is untrue. Certainly, Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s highly capable secretary of state, organised an excellent secret service, but that is what it was: A secret service, not THE Secret Service. A personal system, Walsingham ran it, largely paid for it and placed it at the service of his monarch and country. It died with him.

John Thurloe, secretary to the Council of State during the Cromwell’s regime, also directed an efficient secret service – aided no doubt by his duties as postmaster-general – in order to support the Commonwealth government. His organisation, like Walsingham’s, was personal, and did not survive the Restoration.

It was not until the Victorian era, when Britain began to take the responsibilities of empire seriously, that the seeds of a real secret service were planted. In 1873, the War Office appointed its first Director of Military Intelligence. Though this officer’s department was to collect information of value to the government and army, there was not much thought of secret work. Indeed, to this day, much, if not most, worthwhile intelligence is gathered openly, through newspapers and other media, handbooks and reports issued by foreign governments and, of course, through military, naval and air attachés. These officers, working out of embassies, attend by invitation foreign army and navy manoeuvres, dinners, conferences; in other words, there is nothing covert about their business. The British have usually tried to maintain that openness, to guarantee their attachés’ continued availability.

Impetus for the creation of a genuine espionage service came with the ‘spy scare’ of the later Edwardian era. Novelists, adventurers, journalists and eventually politicians in Britain started demanding that something be done about the hordes of German spies allegedly in the country. One stated that the 50,000 German waiters in Britain were spies, while another asserted that 350,000 German soldiers (half the strength of that country’s peace-time army) were secretly resident in England. This led to a spate of ‘invasion literature’. As often happens, each piece of hysteria became evidence for the next.

But the government felt it had to do something, not least because, behind the hysteria, there was a serious and growing concern regarding German intentions. The problem was given to the Committee of Imperial Defence to solve. In October, 1909, it created the Secret Service Bureau. Thus, the modern British Secret Service was born.

Divided into two sections, military and naval, the former was given to a thirty-six year old half-pay army captain named Vernon Kell to run. For the latter, the choice fell on a fifty year old Royal Navy commander on the retired list, Mansfield Smith Cumming, or C, as he came to be called.

Why was C selected? He had joined the Royal Navy as a twelve year old cadet and, until 1885, led the normal life of a good but undistinguished officer: several ships at sea and participation in a naval brigade (sailors used to supplement artillery or infantry on land). Then, at only twenty-six, he retired “(unfit) on Active Half Pay”. This is the first mystery of C’s life. There is no indication why he was ‘unfit’; family tradition suggests sea-sickness, but his subsequent enjoyment of small boats, on lake, river and ocean, counters this.

A smaller mystery asks what C did for the next thirteen years, though we know he spent some, if not all, of that time as first, private secretary to the Earl of Meath, then, as agent for that aristocrat’s estates in Ireland, where C’s kindness and humour won him friends among a people with no reason to like a landlord’s man.

Then, he was returned to the navy. His ‘unfitness’ may have been cured, or it may be that his new posting – Superintendent of Boom Defences (maritime barriers) at Southampton – did not need complete health. But stories of his agility – climbing rigging and masts, and diving into the sea in winter to clear a fouled propeller – indicate a man even healthier than his age should allow. In any case, C, though reduced in rank so that he could be re-employed, seemed to enjoy his time immensely. His joviality was a characteristic.

Also characteristic was his boyish sense of adventure, often with a disregard for danger. C loved mechanics, and, along with boats, had a fondness for motor-cars, becoming an early member of the Royal Automobile Club. The early days of motoring were filled with hazards but he happily raced cars in speed and endurance tests and reconnoitered routes for the RAC over roads that had never heard internal combustion. Not content with conquering the land and sea (he had helped found the Royal Motor Yacht Club in 1905), he was a founding member of the Royal Aero Club in 1906, though he didn’t obtain his ‘aviator’s certificate’ for seven years – when he was 54.

This was the man plucked from the south coast of England and plopped into Whitehall to run the Secret Service. Why C? It’s true that a member of the Committee of Imperial Defence was one of his old captains, now an admiral. It’s true that he knew Winston Churchill, by that time a cabinet member. C had also toured Europe examining the possibilities afforded by small-boat engines (then more advanced on the Continent than in Britain); it may be that his report and observations had been remembered. Aside from these clues, the mystery of his selection remains.

Once established, however, the Secret Service Bureau grew but slowly. Kell (‘K’) and C shared one clerk, but were alone in their respective departments; the British Secret Service, feared and envied by the great powers of the world, was, in reality, one middle-aged naval officer.

Though his responsibilities were initially stated as providing information to the Admiralty, his boss was the War Office: C was administratively under the War Office’s Directorate of Military Operations’ fifth branch (MO5). This created problems, as MO5 favoured K, and handed over to him a number of agents already being run; this, despite the clarified division of labour that put foreign espionage into C’s hands. He was initially even refused permission to view War Office records. He spent most of his first months waiting in his office in Victoria Street to be contacted – even though only his bosses knew he was there. At one point, he seriously considered resigning from this vaguely Kafka-esque situation, thinking he would leave government service ‘discredited’.

With encouragement from some in the Admiralty, C persevered, and, slowly, managed to wrest some control for his tiny department from others. He started meeting agents alone – previously, he had to have a colleague present – learned German to better understand some contacts, and gradually built a respectable position for himself. That others valued him is seen in his being made a Companion of the Order of the Bath, on the eve of the Great War.

This is no place to describe the large and complicated history of the Secret Service in that gigantic conflict. It’s sufficient to note that at the war’s start, headquarters comprised four officers, four clerks, and five others. By 1917, there were more than forty officers, while staff abroad had increased ‘out of all bounds’. The number of agents must have been staggering. C was knighted in 1919. (For those – such as myself - who keep track of such things, the service became officially known as MO5j in 1914; MI1c in early 1916; MI6 in 1920 – when that designation was left empty by the war-time censorship department that had used it was disbanded. But by then, its members just called it the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).)

C rightly deserves the overused term ‘legendary’, for there are actual legends about him. They often concern his love of speed, inherited, with tragic results, by his son Alaister. The younger Cumming was an officer in a Highland regiment when the Great War broke out, and his father went to France to visit him. Alastair was behind the wheel of a Rolls Royce, with his father as passenger. The young man lost control of the car when a tire blew and there was a horrible wreck. Alastair received mortal injuries, while C was trapped under the car. Hearing his son mutter in discomfort, C used a penknife to cut off the remains of his leg, freeing himself to go to his boy. Whether or not the last part is true, it was believed even by so cynical a man as Compton Mackenzie, then chief of C’s Aegean Sea operations, and later a best-selling author. The actions attributed to C were viewed as perfectly credible by all who knew him.

There were many stories told of him, such as how he had his missing leg replaced by one of cork; he would unnerve guests by absent-mindedly sticking a letter-opener into it. He used a child’s scooter to propel himself around the corridors of Secret Service headquarters. He was a ‘gay dog’ who ‘put up his eyeglass [monocle] at the ladies’. Indeed, he was probably the source of the Secret Service tradition of having the prettiest secretaries in Whitehall. He collected motor-cars, having at one time, six, along with a motorcycle with sidecar, and a Great War tank, on which he would take children for rides. C was a favourite with youngsters, whether related by blood or marriage, or just proximity. He never lost his sense of fun, and would sometimes tell a field operator that after the war, the two of them would go spying together in disguise, as it was ‘capital sport’.

Certainly, he could be ruthless; one didn’t manage a world-wide espionage organisation otherwise. He was also efficient and intelligent: it was he who first divided an espionage service into different collection and analysis departments, so that those who gathered the information passed it on to cooler, disinterested parties for study. It may be too that he coined the term ‘station’ for secret service units permanently based abroad. In the navy, a station referred to a squadron of ships permanently assigned to a particular location (eg. the China Station, the South America Station.)

But the weight of running his one-man show, which eventually employed thousands, took its toll, and Sir Mansfield Smith Cumming died in 1923, still ‘in harness’, passing away while sitting in his office, at 64; younger than many, older than most, at the end of a very busy life. C probably would have been happy with that.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

Welcome to this week's Link Dump!

Complete with a performance by the Strange Company Orchestra!

A famous eulogy for a murdered dog.

The man who asked to be executed.  Quite rightly so, too.

In which Rin Tin Tin's brother rescues some kittens.

The days of wholesome hitchhiking.

The first aerial maps made by an eyewitness.

The controversy over who is the world's oldest dog.

The Giant of Castlenau.

America's many accents and dialects.

Antarctica's weirdest archaeological finds.

Rutherford Hayes, Paraguay hero.

Stuffed camel spleen sandwich, anyone?

The "world's oldest forest" has been discovered...and it's in one of the last places you'd think to look for it.

Pakistan's perfect cooking pot.

It looks like someone conducted a mass murder of bees.

The fight against "obscene quackery."

The Boston Molasses Flood.

A female explorer's secret weapon.

An unusual "superstructure" in the Pacific.

A "dye detective."

Victorian women had a public bathroom problem.

The surgeon who revolutionized battlefield medical care.

A brief history of chocolate chip cookies.

A brief history of a British family.

Tales of corpse collectors.

What we now know about water on the Moon.

Death and "wind phones."

The cats of the British Museum.

When science gets weird.  Really, really weird.

The toad in the Moon.

The origins of "bookworms."

The escape of Empress Matilda.

The kidnapping of John Paul Getty III.

The phenomenon of "earthsickness."

The first witches of Elizabethan England.

Roman Britain's only known crucifixion victim.

An ill-fated Arctic expedition.

A betrayal leads to murder.

The Great Frost of 1683.

A double-cross leads to murder.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll have a guest post discussing the early days of the British Secret Service.  In the meantime, let's get medieval!

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

As I've mentioned before, a supernatural staple is “Person gets on a stranger’s bad side, weird things begin to happen.”  A perfect example is this story from the “Coshocton Daily Age,” September 7, 1906:

A remarkable story comes from just over the Tuscarawas county line, and it sounds spooky.  The people concerned can offer no explanation and it has mystified scores of people who have been witnesses to the strange occurrence.

Age readers will remember an item published about one year ago about a Mrs. Finton, dwelling in Tuscarawas county close to the line of Adams township, this county, shooting a tramp who tried to assault her.  She fired a shot gun point blank at him, and he beat a retreat.  Afterward he was tracked by copious blood stains to a big woods nearby and there all trace of him was lost.  He was never seen again and popular belief has it that he died in the woods and that his remains are still there.

The spooky part of the story now comes.  On three different occasions recently strange things have happened at the Finton home.  In brief, it is a shower of stones.

The last shower was only a few days ago and the Fintons called in several of their neighbors, all reputable people and all vouch for the accuracy of the story.  It is told that stones about the size of “river biscuits” drop on the roof of the house, seemingly from the sky.  Clods of earth and chunks of sod are likewise precipitated.  Related by one of the men, a Mr. Lockard, to the informant of The Age, the story is that several of the neighbors gathered in the yard at the last occurrence, and they could see the stones fall and hear them hit the roof, but no one could see from whence they came.  They seemed to drop straight down.  Stones and chunks of sod, dropped into the yard, some of them almost grazing the spectators but harming no one.

It is said that the stones do not at all resemble any native stone of that locality.

The neighborhood is mystified and an uncanny sensation has spread abroad.

Details of the shooting of the tramp were that the fellow approached the house and insolently asked for something to eat.  The woman ordered him away saying she would call her husband, who was in the house.  In fact the husband was away at his work.  The tramp went away and returned within half an hour and told the woman she had lied to him, that her husband was not there.  Then he said he’d kill her, and hurled a heavy bit of iron at her, which he had picked up about the barn, and it struck the house.  She then got the gun and fired at him.

Whether that occurrence and the present uncanny incidents have any connection is a matter of conjecture.  The neighborhood protests that it is not a practical joke, and all are extremely serious about it.

I was unable to find any follow-up stories.

Monday, January 15, 2024

The Journalist and the Ghostly Dog

Accounts of ghostly animals are more common than you might think.  In his 1939 book “Days of Our Years,” journalist Pierre Van Paassen relates such a story, which is unusual mainly for its utterly inexplicable nature.  The episode took place in the early 1930s, while Van Paassen was living in France.

Sitting alone in my room at nights, I had more than once heard a slight tapping sound on the walls.  I had dismissed the matter from my mind and for years I scarcely paid any attention.  We had two German police dogs.  The bolts and locks on the doors were in good order so that there was not the slightest danger of unwelcome guests intruding without some more racket than a few taps now and then.  Moreover, I did not believe in supernatural manifestations.  We had a ghost tradition in the family on my mother’s side, but that ghost had been left behind in Holland years ago, attached to its traditional haunts.  A ghost does not cross the ocean, apparently, and the stories I had heard about it had almost faded from my memory.

One winter evening I felt the room growing chilly, and thinking that the coal in the furnace was burning low, I went downstairs to the cellar to throw a few shovelfuls on the fire.  It must have been about eleven o’clock.  Returning to my room, while ascending the stairway, I felt something brush past me and looking around I saw a large black dog running down.  I must say that I was more surprised than alarmed.  I turned on my heel and, switching on all the lights in the house, looked for the animal in every room.  I could not find it.  Then I unbolted the front door and called in the police dogs.  They showed not the slightest sign of agitation, although their sense of smell was so acute that when I had stroked a dog somewhere on one of my trips, whether in Moscow or in Damascus or no matter how far away and how long ago, they wagged their tails in recognition as they sniffed my clothes upon my return home.  This time they remained unmoved.  The black dog I had seen had apparently not left a scent behind.  I went back to my room, but found the door standing open, although I was certain that I had closed it before going down to the cellar.

The following night, again at the very same hour, I heard a noise on the stairs, a noise as if a dog were running down swiftly.  The sound came from the second stairway on which no carpet lay.  I flung the door of my room open and switched on the light in the hallway.  I saw the same black dog running down the stairs.  I began to tremble.  I investigated again and called in the dogs once more.  No trace of the intruder…

I did not speak to any members of the household about the incident, not wishing to disturb anyone’s peace of mind.  Yet the manifestation repeated itself as regularly as clockwork on several ensuing evenings.  Then they stopped abruptly.  A short time thereafter I had to go to Rumania on a newspaper assignment--it was the time when Carol returned to seize the throne--and remained away five weeks.  When I returned I was told that the maid was quitting our service because she would not remain in a haunted house.  She had even then started to sleep out.

I questioned the girl.  She said she had been awakened several times at night by a big black dog which pushed open the door of her room and walked about.

“You have been dreaming,” I said; “there is no black dog in this house.  I don’t know of one in the whole village.”  But the girl would not stay with us.

The business was growing serious.  The villagers would stop me and ask questions.  I told my neighbor Crèvecœur about it and he offered to come and sleep in the maid’s room to clear up the mystery.  He arrived one evening at half-past ten with his son, a boy of nineteen.  They had armed themselves with heavy sticks and Crèvecœur pere had brought his army revolver.  We sat in my room with the door wide open and all the lights in the house on full blast.  And sure enough, at the stroke of eleven we heard the patter of a dog’s feet coming down from the second story.  We ran into the hallway, all three of us, but saw nothing at first, until young Crèvecœur called out, “There it is!”  A big black dog stood at the foot of the stairs in the vestibule downstairs.  The dog looked up at us.  My neighbor whistled and the animal wagged its tail.  We started down the stairs, keeping our eyes on the apparition.  We had not gone three steps when the outline of the dog grew fainter and fainter and presently vanished altogether.  Then we searched high and low once more, but no trace of a dog.  For the rest of that night the Crèvecœurs stayed at the house and we all slept peacefully.

There were two years to run on the lease and being poor I could not afford to sacrifice so much rent by moving out.  Moreover, I had decided to see the thing through:  so long as the canine phantom did not bite or bark, its presence for a brief moment each night was bearable.  It was not pleasant and it was slowly wearing our nerves thin, but we had to put up with it.  There was no other way out.  We tried to joke about it, spoke about “Fido, the phantom poodle,” and shrugged our shoulders when anybody inquired about the phenomenon.  At the same time, nobody slept a wink before eleven in our house.

One evening I decided--I do not know why the idea had never occurred to me before--to bring our two police dogs into my room and have them present before the apparition should make itself heard and not afterwards.  This led to a horrible scene.  The dogs pricked up their ears at the first noise on the floor above and leaped for the door.  The sound of pattering feet was coming downstairs as usual, but I saw nothing.  What my dogs saw I do not know, but their hair stood on edge and they retreated growling back into my room, baring their fangs and snarling.  Presently they howled as if they were in excruciating pain and were snapping and biting in all directions, as if they were fighting some fierce enemy.  I had never seen them in such mortal panic.  I could not come to their aid, for I saw nothing to strike with the cudgel I held in my hand.  The battle with the invisible foe lasted less than two minutes.  Then one of my dogs yelled as if he were in the death throes, fell on the floor and died.

I was like a man stricken with the palsy.  I was still trembling from head to foot when the knocker banged on the front door and I opened it.  It was my good neighbor, Monsieur Crèvecœur.  He made me drink some water and the first words I said when I recovered my wits were, “Tomorrow I move out of this place.  I am damned if I stay another day!”  I told him what had happened.  Crèvecœur examined the dead dog and his cowering brother who sat softly whining in a corner, still shaking like a reed.

“I am notifying the mayor tomorrow,” I said.

“What for?” asked Monsieur Crèvecœur.

“I want an official declaration that this house is haunted.  He can send the gendarmes to investigate.”

“The man to send for is the Abbé  de la Roudaire,” answered my neighbor.  “The gendarmes cannot help here.  You need the priest for this.  He will rid you of the phantom if anyone can.  The priests have a secret formula which they use to banish les revenants.”

I looked up the Abbé  next morning.  He had already heard of the mysterious goings-on at our house.  Instead of taking the matter lightly or laughing it off, Monsieur de la Roudaire was very serious.  He promised to be with us that same night.

Crèvecœur also came with his son.  The Abbé  was in the house promptly at ten o’clock.  We took up our vigil again in my room and drank a glass of warm wine, for the night was cold and snow was falling.  We had left the door open, so that we had a view of the stairs to the second story.

At last the pendulum struck the hour of eleven.  Silently we waited for the last stroke.  As the sound died away, the patter of a dog’s feet was heard upstairs.  I began to shake.  I do not wish to boast but I have never feared any physical foe.  I do not remember having trembled in no man’s land.  Yet that night I was weak with fear.  My nerves had been worn raw.  As soon as the Abbé , who had been sitting nearest the door, heard the noise, he rose quietly and walked a few steps towards the entrance.  I took up my stand by his side.  The pattering footsteps stopped on the stairway.  A big black dog stood on the stairs staring straight at the priest.  The animal was wagging its tail.  The Abbé  did not say a word, but his eyes were fixed straight on the apparition.  He took a step forward and the dog emitted a low growl.  Then its outline became hazy and presently it vanished.  The Abbé  walked back into my room.

“Now we can drink in peace,” he said.

“And sleep?” I asked.

“Sleep, too,” he said.  “This is over.”

We telephoned to the cafe of the Golden Lion for a hack.  When we heard the rattle of the carriage outside, the Abbé  wrapped himself up in his cape and I showed him out.  As I placed my hand on the bolt he paused and took me aside.

“You have a young girl in this house, fourteen, fifteen?” he asked.

“Yes, Monsieur l’Abbé , we have a girl who runs errands.  She is fifteen, I think.  She was recommended to us by her mother, a widow--you know her, Madame Germaine.  Why do you ask?”

“Pay her a month’s wages and let her go!” said the Abbé .

“You do not mean this girl has anything to do with the apparition?”

“I certainly do,” he smiled.  Such instances of Poltergeist frequently center around a girl in puberty.  But it is the first time I have seen it take the shape of a dog. D’ailleurs, there is nothing to worry about now.  You should have called me before.”

“Mais, Monsieur l’Abbé !”

“We will talk of this business again someday!”

But he never did.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

This week's Link Dump is proud to be hosted by Fritz!

No, I have no idea who Fritz was, but he was a real stunner, wasn't he?

Strange things can happen in the jungle.

A "real Atlantis."

A number of British superstitions.

Alexander the Great's charm offensive.

The last of the Charlies.

An unlucky battleship.

The cave paintings of Spain's Cova Dones.

A 19th century humanitarian.

Creative ways to make a citizen's arrest.

The discovery of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

The good old days of giant monster worms.

The case of the Pennsylvania Mystery Notes.

Fifth-century recycling.

The "phantom time hypothesis": one of the odder conspiracy theories.

How to speak to chickens.

Stone Age Britons may have been wiped out by a tsunami.

A rivalry in crape.

Super fuels and the Allied air war.

How fireplaces saved historic monuments.

Bring on the poltergeists!

The rise and fall of America's malls.

A brief history of the jitterbug.

The seriousness of 19th century fairy paintings.

UFOs and AI.

A notorious furniture fraud.

A very tidy mouse.

The "landlady of death."

The restoration of Philip of Macedon's palace.

A mysterious Anglo-Saxon artifact.

The career of Lord Chancellor William Cowper.

The roots of ancient Rome's gladiator fights.

The drownings at Ivyside Park.

The controversial execution of Edith Thompson.

Christina of Denmark's lucky escape.

The early 19th century "swell mob."

The Fire Chief turned drug dealer.  And, yes, he was a Florida Man.

Finding the grave of Copernicus.

A newly-discovered ancient Egyptian tomb.

What might be the oldest-known map of the stars.

Casanova: Famous for being famous.

Using cheese to predict the future.

A look at Shropshire witchcraft.

A woman's mysterious death.

That's it for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll meet a ghost dog.  In the meantime, here's a lovely tune from Renaissance-era Spain.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

This creepy little tale appeared in the “San Francisco Examiner,” May 25, 1967:

NEW YORK - (UPI) With a shudder, Bronx police closed the books on the eerie case of the murdered old handkerchief lady who "came back" at a seance and drove her young killer to suicide. And if the case heads like Edgar Allen Poe, Assistant District Attorney Burton Roberts says his office just does not have a more worldly version. According to Roberts, Ivan Barbosa, 24, told his mother, Mrs. Amelia Santos, he had tortured and killed the old handkerchief lady with a knife on March 2, 1966.

The old handkerchief lady was Mrs. Elsie Litt, an 88 year old widow who sold handkerchiefs from a shopping bag. She was friendly with children and well liked around the neighborhood. "I stabbed an old woman because she was screaming," Barbosa reportedly told his mother. Mrs. Santos also said she saw her son break up a small knife and wipe blood from his sleeve.

Police investigated the case, but could not gather enough evidence, Ivan, however, was charged in another matter, molesting a small child, and spent 10 months in the city workhouse. 

When he got out, he complained to his mother that the ghost of the old handkerchief woman was bothering him. He burned two candles in his room and claimed he could not sleep. In late November, Barbosa pleaded with his mother to seek the help of a spiritualist acquaintance to contact the ghost and intercede for him. 

At the seance, the medium, supposedly speaking for Mrs. Litt, cried out: "You killed me! You killed me! You're going to die the same way." 

Roberts said Barbosa jumped up from the table and yelled "I did it!" He ran from the house.

A month later police found him in a furnished room. He had put a bullet through his tortured brain.

Whether this was really the vengeful ghost of poor Mrs. Litt, or a scheme cooked up by his mother and the medium to force him to confess, I can’t say Barbosa didn’t deserve what he got.

Monday, January 8, 2024

The Great Diamond Mine Hoax

I suppose that, deep down, all of us fantasize about an unexpected fortune falling effortlessly into our laps.  Usually such thoughts stay harmless daydreams.  However, every now and then, someone is offered what appears to be the chance to make such dreams real.  Unfortunately, such an opportunity generally causes these people to take their common sense and throw it into an elevator shaft, with the result that what they most often get is not wealth, but mayhem.

On the bright side, these people tend to find their way into my blog.

Our story revolves around two Kentuckians, Phil Arnold and his cousin John Slack.  In the mid-19th century, the pair went to California to try their luck at prospecting.  They had some success, at one point selling a claim for $50,000.  One day in February 1872, the cousins entered the Bank of California in San Francisco.  Arnold asked a teller to deposit a small leather pouch, just for safekeeping.  The teller agreed, but said he would need to see the contents in order to write a receipt.  The man was stunned to learn that the pouch contained a small fortune in uncut diamonds, rubies, and garnets.

After Arnold and Slack left the bank, the teller told the bank’s president, William C. Ralston, about this unusual deposit.  Ralston assumed their clients had discovered a diamond mine, and, sensing an enticing business opportunity, sent bank employees to track down Arnold and Slack to discuss a possible collaboration.

When the Kentuckians were seated in Ralston’s office, the banker asked about the gems.  The prospectors told him they came from a mine they had discovered in Arizona.  The site held promise of spectacular wealth, but unfortunately, it was located in territory controlled by hostile Apaches.  Ralston informed them that he knew of a group of financiers who were willing to brave the risks and buy the mine from them.  Arnold and Slack expressed cautious interest.  They said they were willing to escort an expert of Ralston’s choosing to inspect the mine, but only if the man agreed to travel to and from the mine blindfolded.  After all, it would scarcely do to have the mine’s exact location become known too soon.  Ralston agreed.

Before long, Ralston’s representative, a miner named David Colton, hit the road with the Kentuckians.  The trio soon arrived in Butte, Montana.  Arnold and Slack explained to Colton that the mine was really in Colorado--they just said it was in Arizona to guard against claim jumpers.  Their journey ended at a mesa in Jackson County, where Colton was finally allowed to remove his blindfold.  His companions invited the “expert” to dig around and see what he might find.

Colton began scooping out sand with his hands.  Imagine his delight when, before long, he uncovered a handful of uncut diamonds.  The Kentuckians suggested that he keep two of the diamonds to be examined.  After he selected two of the gems, he was again blindfolded and led back to San Francisco, no doubt with visions of dollar signs dancing in his head for the entire trip.

The two diamonds were examined by the leading jewelers Sloan’s and Tiffany’s.  Both companies confirmed they were authentic.

Ralston and his fellow financiers wanted to send a second “expert,” Henry Janin, to examine the mine.  They pointed out that while Colton was an experienced gold miner, Janin was a professional mining engineer with a reputation for never having made a mistake.  Arnold and Slack cheerfully agreed.

The expedition with Janin was identical to the one with Colton.  Blindfold.  Mesa.  Dig.  Jackpot!  Janin figured that the mesa could be worth $5 million dollars per acre, and if the land around it was as fruitful, the value could be in the millions.  Naturally, he did not mention these estimates to Arnold and Slack.

When Ralston and his associates heard Janin’s report, they secretly invested $10 million to create the “San Francisco and New York Mining and Commercial Company.”  It had 100,000 shares of stock, none of which was offered to the public.  (Among the investors were Horace Greeley, Charles Tiffany, Nathan Rothschild, and several leading Union Civil War Generals.)

Ralston offered the cousins $600,000 for the mine.  Arnold and Slack did some indignant grumbling about the ridiculously low price, but then, without waiting too long, accepted.  No sooner was the money in their hands that they fled back home to Kentucky.  They left no forwarding address.

Before Ralston’s company could start mining the land, another firm managed to deduce the location of the mesa and began digging.  The more they dug, the more appalled they got.  It soon became clear that the only diamonds in the area were the ones planted there by Arnold and Slack.  A government geologist, Clarence King, examined the area.  He found only a few stray diamonds, in places where they never could exist naturally.  He even found one in a hollow tree stump.  He also noted that the combination of minerals that the mesa supposedly yielded--four different types of diamonds, rubies, amethysts, etc.--was geologically impossible.  It was revealed that in 1871, Arnold and Slack visited Amsterdam and London, where they bought about $35,000 worth of uncut gems.  Some went into the leather pouch, and the rest were given a shallow burial in the mesa.

Ralston’s feelings can be imagined.  Few things are as distressing as thinking you have swindled someone, only to realize that the swindle was really on you.  The financial loss of paying back his investors and the Panic of 1873 combined to bankrupt him.  In 1875, Ralston escaped his troubles by drowning himself in San Francisco Bay.

William Lent, one of the investors in the bogus mine, was angry enough to sue Arnold, but Kentucky refused to extradite.  Lent went to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where Arnold had settled, to file a civil suit, but his process servers were unable to find Arnold.  (Arnold enjoyed the protection of his townspeople, who took great pride in his ability to con some of the richest men in the land.)  After a good deal of dickering, Arnold finally agreed to pay Lent $150,000, in exchange for future legal immunity.

Arnold was an example of how, despite what we are told, crime can pay very, very well.  He used the rest of his ill-gotten gains to buy 500 acres of prime farmland, a store, and a lavish mansion on 34 acres.  He even became a banker, something that probably did not amuse the unhappy ghost of William Ralston.  In 1878, Arnold got into a business dispute with another banker, Harry Holdsworth.  On August 15, Arnold encountered Holdsworth in a saloon and beat him up.  Holdsworth returned the favor by getting a sawed-off shotgun and shooting his enemy.  The serious injuries Arnold sustained eventually led to his death from pneumonia in February 1879.  (A side note: Arnold’s mansion in Elizabethtown still stands.  It has a reputation for being haunted, but whether the ghosts are Arnold himself or the many people he gulled is unknown.)

As for John Slack, he moved to St. Louis, where he became a coffin maker.  After his company failed, Slack settled in White Oaks, New Mexico, where he continued in the coffin trade, a rich and well-respected man, until his death in 1896.  It is said that he seldom discussed his unorthodox adventures in diamond mining, but when he did, he made a point of how Ralston and his associates tried to cheat him and Arnold.  

“Now tell me,” he would say indignantly, “which group were the thieves?”

Friday, January 5, 2024

Weekend Link Dump


"The Witches' Cove," Follower of Jan Mandijn

The Strange Company staffers welcome you to the first Link Dump of 2024!

What the hell is the Cerne Abbas Giant?

When the hell did humans start wearing clothes?

Solving a Swiss medical mystery.

A mysterious church in France.

Yet another failed Utopia.

That time a golden cookie was kidnapped for ransom.

That time a British officer arrested a tree.

A famous UFO incident and a deathbed confession.

Pyongyang, Fun Capital of the World.

Sweden's "Icehotel."

Doll houses as grave monuments.

The last day of WWI, literally frozen in time.

In Greenland, they wish you a terrifying New Year.

The skeleton and the ghost farm.

Some New Year's superstitions.

A "low-life femme fatale."

A haunted hiking stopover.

The last woman to be hanged in Pennsylvania.

The five words guaranteed to send terror into the hearts of any Russian:  "Party at Joseph Stalin's house!"

A visit to the Boundary Estate.

Liechtenstein's one film.

The coronation banquet of Elizabeth of York.

The Northwood Murderer.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a simple, but highly successful hoax.  In the meantime, bring on the human waterfalls!

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Via Newspapers.com

This account of a curious…meteorological phenomenon? appeared in the “Public Advertiser,” September 14, 1767:

Extract of a Letter from Edinburgh, Sept, 7. "From the North we have an Account of a very uncommon Phenomenon, which made its Appearance, a few Days ago in Perthshire, to the inconceivable Surprize of all who beheld it. It first was observed on the Water of Ifla, near Cupar Angus, where it was preceded by a thick dark Smoke, which soon dispelled, and discovered a large luminous Body, which at first Sight appeared like a House on fire, but which presently after took a Form something pyramidal, and rolled forwards with Impetuosity till it came to the Water of Erick, which empties itself into lfla, up which River it took its Direction, likewise with great Rapidity, and disappeared a little above Blairgowrie. The Effects  were as extraordinary as the Appearance. In its Passage, it carried a large Cart many Yards over a Field of Grass, a Man riding along the high Road was carried from his Horse, and so stunned with the Fall, as to remain senseless a considerable Time.

It destroyed one half of a House, or rather carried it off, and left the other behind, as the Part carried off was a good many Yards from the other. It undermined and destroyed an Arch of the new Bridge Building at Blairgowrie, immediately after which it disappeared. As few Appearances of this kind ever were attended with like Consequences, various Conjectures have been formed concerning it.

The Country People call it foul Air but it is expected the Public will be yet favoured with a more particular Account, as several Gentlemen of Learning and Inquiry were Witnesses both to its Appearance and Effects."

Monday, January 1, 2024

California's Worst Crime: The Murder of Mabel Mayer

Mabel Mayer of Oakland, California lived a pleasant suburban life.  The teenager had such a cheerful, upbeat manner she was known to friends and family as “Sunshine Mabel.”  She was, at the same time, a quiet, obedient girl who never got into any serious trouble.  Mabel would probably have gone on to lead a happy, if totally anonymous existence, if not for the fact that at the age of 15, she was the victim of what was known for years afterwards as “California’s worst crime.”

Mabel’s last day on this earth was July 2, 1927.  It was an active one.  In the morning, she left home to visit a dentist and take a music lesson.  She had already arranged to have dinner and spend the night at the Berkeley home of her uncle, Christian Mayer.  After her lesson, she had lunch at a tearoom, and then took in a movie.  At about 6 p.m., she arrived at her uncle’s home.  She was her usual carefree self.

At about 8 p.m., Mabel’s brother William telephoned her.  A short while later, Mabel’s father also called.  He told her that he and William were going to a card party at the home of some friends.  Did she want to join them?  After a brief discussion with her uncle, she said that she’d take the next train home.  William agreed to meet her at the Blanche St. station at 10 p.m.

When William met the train, he found that Mabel was not on board.  When he returned to the party, his father told him that Mabel had probably just missed the train, and would be on the next one, which arrived at 10:20.  He was wrong.  Mabel was not on that train, or any other that arrived at the station.

Mabel’s relatives were still not alarmed.  They assumed she had changed her mind, and stuck to her original plan to stay overnight at her uncle’s.

Early the next morning, two workmen went to a long-vacant house near the Mayer home, where they were building a garage.  When they went to the backyard, they discovered the bloodied body of a young girl.  ID found in her nearby purse established that this was the corpse of Mabel Mayer.

Mabel had suffered a particularly savage death.  Two pieces of lumber from the half-finished garage had been used to batter her so severely that one arm was broken and her once-pretty face was so mangled it was nearly unrecognizable.  Her breasts were also mutilated.  Her shattered wristwatch had stopped at 9:55.  The cause of death was either blood loss or asphyxiation.

The yard where Mabel's body was found

It was easy to reconstruct what had happened.  Mabel had intended to take the train, but she missed it.  Then, instead of waiting for the next one, she took two streetcars, the last of which dropped her off at 9:45.  She was only three blocks from her home.  Then, as she walked past the vacant house, someone lurking behind the house (or, considering that two pieces of wood were used in the assault, possibly two someones) came out of the darkness to grab the girl and drag her to the backyard.  Bloody smears on the back door suggested that at some point during the attack, poor Mabel had escaped long enough to pound on the door in the vain hope that someone was inside.

The murder seemed to be as senseless as it was gruesome.  Although her clothes were badly torn, there was no evidence of sexual assault, and nothing had been stolen from her purse, ruling out robbery as a motive.  Another baffling feature of the crime was that even though it took place in a heavily-populated suburban neighborhood, no neighbors reported hearing screams or any other sign that a horror was taking place in their midst.  Indeed, a family who lived right next door to the murder scene came home from an evening drive at about 10 p.m.--right at the time when Mabel was being killed--without having a clue that anything was wrong.

"San Francisco Examiner," July 4, 1927, via Newspapers.com

Mabel had no enemies, or any serious boyfriends.  She was a happy girl, with a fine character.  Everyone liked Mabel.  Although the extreme brutality suggested a personal rage against the victim, how could anyone know that Mabel would miss her train and opt to walk home?  Police concluded that she must have been the victim of a completely random attack, committed by a stranger.  A stranger who seemed to have vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared.  It’s small wonder that the murder left Oakland deeply unnerved.

Police found one possible clue to Mabel’s murder, but it was an extremely weak one.  She left the movie theater at 4 p.m.  Half an hour later, she ran into two friends, and chatted with them for a few minutes.  These friends later told police that Mabel was accompanied by an adult woman who was a stranger to them.  (This woman was never identified.)  After that, it is unknown what Mabel did until she arrived at her uncle’s house at 6.  Did that unaccounted-for hour and a half have anything to do with her murder just a few hours later?  Or was it--as seems most likely--a red herring?  

A broken string of beads--that was established as not belonging to Mabel--was found near her body.  That, plus the fact that some bloody fingerprints found at the scene were small and tapering, led to the theory that Mabel was murdered by a woman, perhaps one jealous of the teen girl’s attractiveness to the opposite sex.

One intriguing suspect did eventually emerge.  Mabel’s schoolmates stated that in the period just before her murder, a stranger was often seen loitering around the schoolyard, and he seemed to take a particular interest in Mabel.  This mystery man was finally shooed away from the yard by Powell Pierce, a policeman who was acting as a school crossing guard.  Pierce, who went on to become a detective, believed it was very possible that this stranger was Mabel’s killer.

In 1929, Pierce was in the Alameda County Courthouse.  He was surprised to see the man he had chased away from the school sitting in one of the courtrooms.  He learned that the stranger was David Barnett, who was awaiting trial for attempting to kidnap a girl.  The District Attorney immediately launched a search into Barnett’s background, which proved to be a very interesting one indeed.  At the time of Mabel’s murder, Barnett was working at a lumber company that had sold material to the workmen who were constructing the garage at the house where she was killed.  One of Barnett’s co-workers, Walter Olmstead, was a neighbor and acquaintance of the Mayer family.  However, neither Barnett’s nor Olmstead’s fingerprints were found at the murder scene.  Olmstead had a stainless reputation, and police concluded that he was in no way connected with the crime.  Barnett, meanwhile, not only insisted that he knew nothing about the murder, but denied having been the man Pierce had chased away from the schoolyard.  He was adamant that he had never so much as laid eyes on Mabel Mayer.  No one could prove otherwise.

After this once-promising lead fizzled out, there were no further developments in the mystery, leaving Mabel Mayer’s murder as a particularly haunting “cold case.”