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

Friday, August 29, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Cats:  Don't leave home without them!

On to the links:

Where the hell is Catherine Walsh?

What the hell is this Japanese tomb?

What the hell is flying over Long Island?

What the hell is this banana flying over Wales?

What the hell is the Upsweep?

What the hell are these jade discs?

Who the hell was Kennewick Man?

Watch out for the Glastonbury Glawackus!

Watch out for the Kentucky Goblins!

Watch out for those atmospheric beasts!

Watch out for those sea serpents!

The Pennines is really sinking!

The Pacific is really glowing!

Ancient France is really feuding!

The ancient Roman who was the first known UFO investigator.

Uncovering a Siberian war hero.

Yet another article where the idiot of a writer expresses surprise at the concept that animals think.

A tribute to some of history's unjustly forgotten horses.

A story that's both sad and inspiring:  The woman who's turned her home into a cat hospice.

If a dog is man's best friend, a crocodile's best friend is a cat.  Or something like that.

You want to talk climate change?  This is climate change.

Cactus Cats! Splinter Cats!  Sliver Cats!

That time a Jewish Confederate was saved by a talking parrot.

Napoleon:  Devil's Disciple, or His Satanic Majesty himself?  You make the call.

Examiner, Feb. 7, 1808

Some tales of Mystery Music.

The kind of mistake that could happen to anyone.

Sorry, gang, JFK and Marilyn did not engage in pillow-talk about extraterrestrials.  That we know of, at least.

Standards of feminine beauty through the ages.

In which space cadets argue about rat utopias.

Decoding Newton.

The last of the hermits.

Ah, the English countryside.  Sleepy villages, romantic moors, peaceful woods, bloodthirsty cannibals...wait, what?

Tea at Fortnum & Mason's.  Prepare to have your credit card shriek in agony.

Richard Norris, the two-faced man.

Stupid Nazi Tricks.

Science and magic are more compatible than you might think.

Lawyers, Guns, and Dummy.

The history of the New York Lambs, featuring their cat and goat mascots.

That wraps it up for this edition of the Link Dump.  I'll see you on Monday, when I'll be looking at the time demons visited 17th century Massachusetts.  In the meantime, have a great weekend, gang.  Here's Lowell George to get you out of trouble.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

In the spring of 1833, English newspapers carried numerous reports of strange occurrences in the parsonage of Syderstone. For weeks, the papers hosted a lively debate over whether or not the eerie phenomena plaguing a rector's family was the result of a ghost.

One of the earliest accounts of this spooky mystery comes from the "Bury and Norwich Post," May 8, 1833:

Nothing is more characteristic of the present age than the advancement of true philosophy and sound reason over that terrifying superstition and foolish belief in supernatural agencies which so universally prevailed during the dark ages, and especially amongst the illiterate, even up to the end of the last century. But it may be questionable perhaps whether these opinions are not rather suffered to slumber than entirely rooted out. Men seem to have a natural inclination to love the marvellous, and a mere nominal or imperfect acquaintance with religion seems in no small degree calculated to foster this disposition. The more intelligent may have discarded such absurdities; but the scepticism of the mass of the people on these subjects would in all probability be staggered by a well got-up ghost scene in real life: indeed the remains of superstition which still cling to us can hardly be ascertained unless put to the test; and then it is remarkable how soon people become convinced, without that rational and satisfactory proof which would be required in any other matter. The following circumstance has been creating great alarm in the neighbourhood of Fakenham for the last six weeks. In Syderstone Parsonage lives the Rev. Mr. Stewart, Curate, and Rector of Thwaighte. The house has a modern appearance, and not at all calculated for concealment.

About six weeks since an unaccountable knocking was heard in it in the middle of the night. The family became alarmed, not being able to discover the cause. Since then it has gradually been becoming more violent until it has now arrived at such a frightful pitch that one of the servants has left through absolute terror, and the family, we understand, intend removing as early as possible. The noises commence almost every morning about two o'clock, and continue until daylight. Sometimes it is a knocking, now in the ceiling overhead, now in the wall, and now directly under the feet; sometimes it is a low moaning which the Rev. Gentleman says reminds him very much of the moans of a soldier on being whipped; and sometimes it is like the sounding of brass, the rattling of ice, or the clashing of earthenware or glass — but nothing in the house is disturbed. It never speaks, but will apparently beat to a lively tune, and moan at a solemn one; especially at the morning and evening hymns. Every part of the house has been carefully examined to see that no one could he secreted, and the doors and windows are always fastened with the greatest caution. Both inside and outside of the house have been carefully examined during the time of the noises, which always arouse the family from their slumbers and oblige them to get up, but nothing can be discovered. It is heard by every one present, and several ladies and gentlemen in the neighbourhood, who, to satisfy themselves, have remained all night with Mr. Stewart's family, have heard the same noise and have been equally surprised and frightened. Mr. Stewart has also offered any of the tradespeople in the village an opportunity of remaining in the house and convincing themselves. Indeed the rev. gentleman has several times spoken to the supposed ghost, demanding the cause of its being troubled, and has even attempted to use his spiritual authority to exorcise it, but all to no purpose.

The shrieking last Wednesday night was terrific. It has been formerly reported in the village that the house was haunted by a rev. gentleman whose name was Mental, [Ed. note: The man's name was actually "Mantle"--an unfortunate typo, under the circumstances] who died there about 27 years since, and this is now generally believed to be the case. His vault, in the inside of the Church, has lately been repaired and a new stone put down. The house is adjoining the church yard, which has added, in no inconsiderable degree, to the horror which pervades the villagers when the family daily tell the tales of the previous night's freaks and screams of the nocturnal visitant. The tale is told with great eclat in the surrounding villages; and those who previously were believers in the earthly visitations of spirits are as much confirmed in their opinions as if one plainly and openly had arisen from the dead; and the incredulous are made almost to believe: it is altogether a rare feast for the superstitions. As to our own opinion, it is that, in all likelihood, some wily practitioner of fraud has availed himself of a knowledge of the premises, a disposition to be superstitious, and a fearful reluctance rigidly to push a proper investigation, to harass and annoy the family; at the same time we must say, from the representations of ear-witnesses, that the thing is so cleverly and cautiously conducted as to give it a very mysterious character.

On May 29, this same paper carried a sequel to their story:

Since our communication on the above subject, facts have repeatedly reached us of further freaks of this mysterious and nocturnal visitant, and from these repeated representations, we have thought it right to pay a visit to the village to enquire further into particulars, and although there are some circumstances that we do not at present feel at liberty to divulge, yet we believe the following particulars may be given without any breach of good faith.

On Wednesday last, Mr. Stewart requested several most respectable gentlemen to sit up all night, namely, the Rev. Mr. Spurgeon, of Docking, the Rev. Mr. Goggs, of Creake, the Rev. Mr. Lloyd, of Massingham, the Rev. Mr. Titlow, of Norwich, and Mr. Banks, surgeon, of Holt, and also Mrs. Spurgeon. Especial care was taken that no tricks should be played by the servants ; but as if to give the visitors a grand treat, the noises were even louder and of longer continuance than usual. The first commencement was in the bed-chamber of Miss Stewart, and seemed like the clawing of a voracious animal after its prey. Mrs. Spurgeon was at the moment leaning against the bed post, and the effect on all present was like a shock of electricity. The bed was on all sides clear from the wall; — but nothing was visible. Three powerful knocks were then given to the sideboard, whilst the hand of Mr. Goggs was upon it. The disturber was conjured to speak, but answered only by a low hollow moaning; but on being requested to give three knocks, it gave three most tremendous blows apparently in the wall. The noises, some of which were as loud as those of a hammer on the anvil, lasted from between 11 and 12 o'clock until near two hours after sunrise. The following is the account given by one of the gentlemen:

"We all heard distinct sounds of various kinds — from various parts of the room and the air — in the midst of us — nay we felt the vibrations of parts of the bed as struck; but we were quite unable to assign any possible natural cause as producing all or any part of this. We had a variety of thoughts and explanations passing in our minds before we were on the spot, but we left it all equally bewildered."

On another night the family collected in a room where the noise had never been heard ; the maidservants sat sewing round a table, under the especial notice of Mrs. Stewart, and the manservant with his legs crossed and his bands upon his knees, under the cognizance of his master. The noise was then for the first time heard there — "above, around, beneath, confusion all," — but nothing seen, nothing disturbed, nothing felt, except a vibratory agitation of the air, or a tremulous movement of the tables or what was upon them. It would "be in vain to attempt to particularise all the various noises, knockings and melancholy groanings of this mysterious something. Few nights pass away without its visitation, and each one brings its own variety. We have little doubt that we shall ultimately learn that this midnight disturber is but another Tommy Tadpole, but from the respectability and superior intelligence of the parties who have attempted to investigate into the secret, we are quite willing to allow to the believers of the earthly visitations of ghosts all the support which this circumstance will afford to their creed — that of unaccountable mystery. We understand that enquiries on the subject have been very numerous, and we believe we may even say troublesome, if not expensive. We may suggest that it cannot be expected that letters should be taken in unless post-paid.

The parsonage was examined thoroughly, in the hopes of finding some sort of rational explanation for the peculiar knockings--a trench was even dug around the house--but nothing was found to throw any light on the disturbances. In fact, the more the house was inspected, the louder and more frequent the noises became, as if to taunt these researchers.

On June 22, 1833, the "Norfolk Chronicle" published a number of affidavits from various long-time residents of the area, who all testified that violent and mysterious knockings and groanings had been heard in and around the parsonage for at least the past forty-five years--at times, when the house was completely unoccupied. This, of course, was greeted with a good deal of skepticism, with some correspondents strongly suggesting these affidavits--all from the "servant class"--were the products of weak-mindedness and illiterate superstition.

After this, the story faded from the newspapers on the usual exasperatingly inconclusive note. The last report I have found of the weird happenings at Syderstone is this brief item:

Yorkshire Gazette, July 27, 1833

The "ghost"--as ghosts usually do--disappeared from the public eye, but, apparently, not from the life of the Stewart family. In Edward Moor's 1841 book "Bealings Bells: An Account of the Mysterious Ringing of Bells at Great Bealings, Suffolk, in 1834" he published a letter written to him by Reverend Stewart, which made it clear that the Syderstone haunting was--in a reversal of the usual phrase--forgotten, but not gone:

Syderstone Parsonage,
near Fakenham, Norfolk,
Tuesday Evening, May 11, 1841.

Sir,—You have indeed sent your letter, received yesterday, to the House of Mystery. In the broad lands of England you cannot, perhaps, find such another. But I regret to add, that I can afford you no assistance in the “Bell” line. I have no doubt but your work will be very curious. I shall look out for its announcement in the Norwich Papers, and feel gratified to be a purchaser.

"Our noises," in this Parsonage, are of a graver character. Smart successions of "Tappings,"— "groanings,"—"cryings,"— "sobbings,"—"disgusting scratchings,"—"heavy trampings,"—and “thundering knocks,”—in all the rooms and passages,—have distressed us, here, for a period of nearly "Nine Years," during my occupancy of this Cure. They, still, continue—to the annoyance of my family, the alarm of my servants, and the occasional flight of some of them. And I am enabled, clearly, to trace their existence in this Parsonage, to a period of Sixty Years past. I have little doubt either that, were not all the residents anterior to that time (in fact of a former generation) now passed away, I could be able to carry my successful scrutiny “on, and on!”

In 1833, and 1834—we kept almost open house to enable respectable people who were personally known by, or introduced to, us to satisfy their curiosity. But, our kindness was abused,—our motives misinterpreted,—and even our characters maligned. We, therefore, closed our doors; and they remain hermetically sealed! 
In  1834—I had prepared my "Diary" for publication. My Work was purchased by Mr. Rodd, the eminent Bookseller, of Newport Street, London, but as the "End" had not arrived, I postponed my intention from day to day,—and year to year,— in hope of such consummation. But the "Noises" occasionally recur, and my “Diary" occasionally progresses, until it has, now, assumed rather a formidable appearance.

Nothing can be more laudable than your generous, and christian object, proposed by the sale of your work in question; and the favourable results of which will, I respectfully trust, equal your most sanguine hopes.

Suffer me, again, to express my regrets for being unable in any way to forward your object: whether from personal experience or the experience of friends. I assure you l shall hear, with pleasure, of your being more fortunate in your application to others.

I have the honor to be,


Your obedient Servant,
John Stewart, Clk.

Unfortunately, I can find no indication that Stewart's diaries were ever published.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Hotel Marguery Mystery

Once upon a time, there was a 63-year-old sales manager for a shirt manufacturing company named Albert E. Langford, who lived with his wife in a suite in New York City's elegant Hotel Marguery. On the night of June 4, 1945, he went to see who was outside one of the doors of their apartment. Whoever was there shot him dead, and seemingly disappeared into thin air.

The murder itself was puzzling, but relatively straightforward. What made this case so weird was the subsequent investigation into the crime, which brought forward a cast of characters more suited for a vaudeville sketch than a murder inquiry.

Chief among these human oddities was Albert's semi-grieving widow. Mrs. Marion Mayer Langford was, at the time of her husband's death, 70 years old, although she stubbornly maintained she was only 55. This "art and music patroness" was a flamboyant woman with heavy makeup, hair dyed a bright red, and lots of expensive jewelry. She had a substantial allowance from her wealthy father, which she augmented through a series of highly profitable investments. She was, in fact, the modern-day equivalent of a multi-millionaire, of considerably higher wealth and social position than her spouse. Langford, to whom she had been married less than three years, was her second husband. Her first marriage, to a lawyer named Grimes, ended when he died on the French Riviera in 1936.

Mrs. Langford could tell the police very little about Albert's murder. Her account of the evening was almost peculiarly simple: She had spent the earlier part of the evening entertaining friends. They left shortly after her husband arrived home from work. She then retired to her bedroom to change clothes. At about 8:30, her Pekingese, Wendy, began growling at a door which led to the hotel corridor, and Albert went to see what was up. After a few moments, he returned with the news that there were two men outside who wished to speak to her. He gathered that the purpose of their visit was something connected to Rafaelo Diaz, an opera singer who had been a close friend of Mrs. Langford's before his death in 1943. She declined to see them. Albert left to send the men away. Mrs. Langford heard the sound of angry voices, then of a scuffle. When she went out to the foyer to investigate, she found Albert on the ground, bleeding from a bullet wound in the head. He died before help could arrive.

That was all anyone could ever determine about the death of Albert Langford. No one in the hotel, including his wife, claimed to have heard any gunshots. No one had any idea who the two men could have been. They had apparently avoided going by the front desk of the hotel. The Hotel Marguery's elevator operator stated that on the fatal night, he had taken two men up to Langford's floor, but when they left the elevator, they walked off in the direction opposite to the victim's apartment. He never saw them again, so presumably they left by the hotel stairwell. All the elderly, near-sighted operator could say about the passengers was that they were deeply tanned and wore dark coats. The murder weapon was never found.

The motive for the killing was equally mysterious. The dead man had apparently been a nondescript, inoffensive type, the sort who fails to attract either ardent friends or passionate enemies. A suspicion soon arose that the real target of the killers was not Mr. Langford, but his wife. According to law enforcement, in the weeks prior to the murder Marion had gone to the police and the District Attorney, complaining that certain unnamed people were trying to extort money from her.

Investigators began to examine Mrs. Langford's many friends and acquaintances, who proved to be a very curious lot. The most well-known of her associates was 59-year-old Evelyn Nesbit. Four decades earlier, Nesbit had figured in one of America's most scandalous murders, when her former lover, Stanford White, was shot by her husband Harry Thaw.

As a beautiful teenager, Nesbit had been a celebrated model and chorus girl, courted by a string of wealthy and famous men, but the years had not been kind to her. By the time of the Langford murder, the divorced woman was a broke, washed-up alcoholic. Nesbit confirmed the reports that Mrs. Langford--whom she described as a close friend--had been plagued by extortionists.

Another notorious figure who popped up in the investigation was former silent-film star Carlyle Blackwell. In between his marriages to heiresses and Ziegfield girls, he was said to have been briefly engaged to Marion before her marriage to Albert Langford. Although his name added additional color to the newspaper reports about the mystery, he claimed he had not seen Marion for several years, and could say nothing relevant to the shooting.

The police believed their most promising lead was in Mrs. Langford's relationship with the late operatic tenor, Rafaelo Diaz. Diaz sang with the Metropolitan Opera for some years before he quit in favor of performing "in the drawing rooms of socialite women." (And, yes, that was probably a euphemistic description of his activities.) Diaz and Marion had once been partners in a slightly shady-sounding talent booking company. Could this business have attracted some crooked associates who were now looking to squeeze money out of the wealthy woman? It was not an implausible theory, but no evidence to back it up was ever uncovered.

Then there was another singing friend of Marion's, a 30-year-old operetta singer/would-be show business impresario named Reed Lawton. Police were very interested indeed to learn that during the course of their friendship, Mrs. Langford had given him more than $100,000. Lawton was married, but he conceded that he "didn't emphasize the fact to Mrs. Langford." It was reported that the pair had planned to open up a nightclub together, stories that Marion fiercely denied.

After her husband's death, Marion Langford found herself issuing a lot of denials. Stories emerged that she frequented nightclubs and illegal gambling joints and that she regularly held card parties in her apartment which were attended by some very dubious characters. It was said that she gave money and lavish gifts to a succession of "proteges" in the musical world--all of them personable men many years her junior. Acccording to a former chauffeur, she often took lengthy vacations in the company of various men.  There was also talk about her friendship with a "familiar nightclub character" named Joseph Rosenzweig, who was well-known to the police thanks to his penchant for committing grand larceny and writing rubber checks.

Reed Lawton interrupted his career (he was touring with a road company production of "Naughty Marietta") long enough to talk to police and, of course, the press. He told a peculiar story about how a Cherokee Indian, "Chief Robert Redwing" had arranged the marriage between the Langfords with the help of a "Baroness de Chaney," an ex-lover of Albert's. Albert, it seems, had promised them $25,000 if they found him a rich woman to marry, and their choice for this honor was the widowed Marion Grimes.

Mrs. Langford gave many vehement, decidedly frazzled-sounding statements--often in the third person-- describing all these "dirty, rotten statements" as bald-faced lies. According to Marion, she never gambled. Since her remarriage, she had never so much as set foot in a nightclub. She "never associated with Broadwayites and she never had disreputable people in her house." The "smartest people in America" were "her dearest friends." She "spent her money the way she wanted to--which, perhaps, was foolish but she did." Her "standing financially and socially is 100 per cent plus."  She had never traveled alone with any man other than her husband. The 100 grand she gave Reed Lawton was merely a loan, one that he quickly repaid. She also refuted any suggestion that the late Mr. Langford had been little more than a gigolo who had married her for her money. "He was a friend of my late husband, a very nice man and easy to get along with. I wanted companionship." (She did, however, admit that she had kept the marriage a secret from her father. Apparently, after her first husband died, old Mr. Meyer had warned her against remarrying, lest she fall prey to fortune hunters.) Albert, she huffed, was "the finest man who ever lived...My husband worshiped me and adored me until he breathed his last...he never accepted a dime from me." She added "I'll tell you what's wrong with me--I've been too damn good. I've been a sucker."

Mrs. Langford complained that she was "a cultured woman, a refined woman. I speak English, French, German and Italian. I have legions of friends...My husband's people love me and my servants are faithful." Her only fault was being enough of a "damn fool" to generously hand out money to unworthy friends. Reed Lawton, she snarled, was a "fantastic liar...very difficult to handle."

And as for that hussy Evelyn Nesbit, why, she barely knew the dreadful woman at all. Same with Joseph Rosenzweig. Despite what the police claimed, she insisted that no one had ever tried to extort money from her. Mrs. Langford speculated that her husband had fallen victim to holdup men. "I wish to God they had taken my jewelry and left my husband alive," she sighed. Marion also volunteered the information that a few days before the murder, Albert had gone to a fortune teller who told him he would live to be 98.

Hopefully, Mrs. Langford revisited this soothsayer and demanded a refund.

Marion ended this public self-pity party by moaning that "She has been honest and helped poor struggling people and what she got from the newspapers was really something."

The police finally found "Baroness de Chaney" living in Hollywood. She proved to be a former model named Beatrice Coleman. She claimed the story of the $25,000 "finder's fee" was nothing but an innocent joke. She admitted that before he married, Langford had given her a diamond bracelet and a 40-carat sapphire ring, and that he had offered to loan her money for some business enterprise, but she maintained that contrary to what the press was reporting, he never supported her financially. After Langford married, she saw no more of him because "Mrs. Langford was very jealous of me and forced us to break off our friendship." Coleman offered the enigmatic theory that Langford had been killed because "he was in somebody's way...You know there was much money involved, and money is a powerful force." She gave no further details.

Meanwhile, by July 2, 1946, Mrs. Langford had recovered from her grief enough to marry for the third time. Her newest husband was Walter von Elvers, a young dentist who had been squiring her around the New York nightclubs.

This parade of nuttiness did not bring anybody one step closer to solving the murder, but the police investigation, always lacking in direction, wearily slogged on for a while longer. They learned that Langford had put a great deal of his wife's money into some business schemes of dubious probity, and that shortly before his death, she had told him he wouldn't be getting another cent from her. These stories were given credence when, in 1947, "Chief Redwing" was arrested for his role in some bogus "oyster dehydration company." Perhaps Langford had somehow crossed some of his shady associates, and they took a lethal revenge? It was no secret that the Langford's apartment contained some $100,000 worth of jewelry and artwork.  Perhaps Albert was one of the victims of a Brooklyn gang of robbers who had committed other murders in the New York area?  Perhaps, as a few papers vaguely hinted, blackmail had been the motive?

All this made very entertaining copy for newspaper readers, of course, but by the time the murder finally faded from the headlines, the world had yet to learn who killed Albert Langford, and why.

Only Wendy knew, and she wasn't talking.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Knock knock!
Who's there?

Western Press, Sept. 28, 1929

Regular Link Dump readers probably already guessed the answer to this one.

So, let's knock around some links:

What the hell is with this toothy Jesus?

What the hell is with this ancient skull?

Who the hell wrote this ubiquitous poem?

Who the hell was Eldad?

What the hell is the Bermuda Triangle of the East?

Watch out for the Beast of Gevaudan!

Watch out for those Magic Evil Eye Boxes!

Watch out for these weird beaches!

Watch out for those fictitious distresses!

Mexico is really cracking up!

"Cocaine, runnin' all 'round my brain..."

Catholics, dead sheep and fire balls, all in one post!

Cornwall, Ontario:  A little-known headquarters for Weird.

Agnes Waterhouse, the first woman in England to be hanged for witchcraft.

Laurence Shirley, nobleman and executed murderer.

Toby the Sapient Pig, the "greatest curiosity of the present day."

Out: Grammar Nazis.
In: Grammar Devils!

Remembering the King of the Gypsies.

Cornwall, where witches have their own museum.

The Netherlands, where Santa is being called a racist.

Berlin's weird amusement park.

Mankind's legacy:  A bunch of freakin' holes.

Nellie Sloggett, who was sort of Cornish folklore's Mollie Fancher.

On astronomers and UFOs.

The vacuum cleaner that could have brought world peace.  Or something like that.

The Grim Reaper visits Albuquerque.

A ghost moose visits Maine.

Richard III liked his wine.

Just another mysterious death in Los Angeles.

A look at Early Modern monuments.

Edward VIII's magician doctor.

Time slips a go-go.

The celebrated Mrs. Lessingham:  The life and times of a Georgian actress.

The last shot fired at Waterloo.  It did not go the way you might think.

Just how old are we?

The rules for gentlemanly pistol dueling.

It's Friday.  What better time to read about the history of the Happy Hour?

Bladder-Stone Operation:  The Musical!

Taliesin:  Frank Lloyd Wright's cursed home.

A night that could truly be described as "Hell on Earth":  The Crocodile Massacre of Ramree Island.

And, finally, our song of the week: Jeff Buckley's sublime reading of my favorite poem.

See you all Monday, when I'll be looking at a New York murder with a remarkable cast of characters.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This one comes to us courtesy of a journal, not a newspaper, but close enough.  It is a short, if anything but sweet story from the "Worcester Magazine," for the third week of September, 1787. As M.R. James would say, it is a warning to the curious.
Philadelphia, September 1. We learn from Lancaster that the following singular affair is founded on fact, and confirmed by Dr. Huston.

On the evening of the 11th ultimo, a young man having obtained information of some young women near Wright's ferry, having formed a resolution of going in the evening to a cornfield to get some roasting ears of Indian corn, resolved he would go with a white sheet about him to represent a ghost, and have some fun in scaring them; but fatal was the consequence to him; whether he saw any thing which might be permitted to chastise him for his boldness, or what incident fell out to craze his imagination we cannot tell. But so it turned out, that after running through the fields for some hours, at last he reached a house in a manner frighted beyond description; he was immediately seized with epileptic fits, and continued to have frequent returns of them, till they put a period to his existence about the middle of last week. Doctor Huston attended him, and says when he was not in these fits, he was always scared and imagined he saw something terrible, and cried to be taken away from it.

This is an awful warning against all attempts to terrify women and children, from which no good consequences will follow, but sometimes those that are very fatal.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Brooklyn Enigma

Mary Jane “Mollie” Fancher appeared destined to be one of the most pleasantly average girls in Brooklyn, New York. Her early life had had some troubles, but no more than were successfully faced by many people in that or any other period. Born on August 16, 1848, her mother died when she was seven, and her father subsequently remarried and virtually disappeared from her life. She and her two surviving siblings were thereafter raised by an unmarried aunt, Susan Crosby. Fancher grew up bright and well-liked, and appeared quite normal until 1864, when she developed some vague, not-unusual complaints—“nervous indigestion,” lack of appetite, and general weakness. Physicians prescribed a regime of horseback riding as the best way of “bringing her out of herself.” It indeed set her on the road to doing just that, but in ways no one imagined. This seemingly innocuous doctor’s order was her first step into becoming what would later be called "The Brooklyn Enigma." Even if the more astounding stories about her are taken with some skepticism, she still remained striking proof that we human beings are far more complex and mysterious creatures than we even realize.

Fancher’s long, strange journey began on May 19, 1864, when she was thrown from her horse. She suffered a few broken bones and head injuries, but she gradually recovered. She even accepted a proposal of marriage. However, her convalescence was scarcely over before she was even more badly hurt in a horrific accident where her skirt became caught on a streetcar and it inadvertently wound up dragging her over the pavement for nearly a block. She suffered head and spinal injuries, and it seemed at first that this second incident was too much for the girl. On February 3, 1866, Fancher, who had been bedridden since her accident, slipped into the first of what would prove to be a lifetime of recurring trance states. From that time until the end of her life, she was bedridden, often blind and utterly paralyzed. She scarcely, if ever, ate or drank. Her baffled doctors could do nothing for her except try to make her tormented existence as bearable as possible.

In June of 1866, her doctor, Robert Spier, arrived to do a routine examination. Before leaving, he said smilingly, “I always remain here longer than I intend. I was to be home today at one o’clock to my dinner. We are having chicken pot pie, and you know it is never good when cold.”

The next day, Fancher fell into a lengthy trance state. Her right hand was frozen in an awkward position behind her head. Her entire body was largely paralyzed and in chronic, agonizing pain.

Here is where Fancher’s story goes from tragic to incredible. This paralyzed, bedridden, pain-wracked, seemingly utterly broken woman became a whirlwind of activity. She wrote thousands of letters, kept a diary, created numerous beautiful yarn works and wax flowers, (talents she did not have before her illness,) and from her little bedroom--a room she would never leave again--carried on a busy social life.

This went on for nine years, until she went into another mysterious coma. When she awoke, the first face she saw was that of Dr. Spier’s brother. She asked him if his sibling made it home in time to get his chicken pie. Then, she realized that everyone around her suddenly looked much older…

Her mind had reverted to the “old Mollie.” She had no memory of the past nine years. When shown her letters and yarn work, she thought, “They were the work of one who was dead.”

Fancher began exhibiting varied psychic abilities. For unknown reasons, she quickly went blind, only to discover that she could “see” anyway. She could not explain it other than to say that it was like she could somehow “see” through her forehead. (This likely had something to do with the pineal gland located between the eyes—what mystics call “the third eye.”) She also displayed clairvoyant powers, predicting events in the future. She began to practice “astral projection,” where her mind could travel at will and observe events hundreds of miles away. On at least one occasion, this “wild talent,” as Charles Fort would call it, plunged her into horror. One day, she suddenly screamed, “My God, he is dead!” She was helplessly watching her brother dying in a train accident.

Fancher's other peculiar abilities were carefully recorded. It was said that in complete darkness, she could correctly distinguish colors. She could find objects people had mislaid. She knew when thunderstorms were approaching, many hours before they arrived. She read letters and books merely by running her hands over them. When her front bell rang, she knew who was there before anyone even answered the door.

On one occasion, she suddenly told Miss Crosby, "Aunt, Uncle Ike is at the door, and he is very ill." She was right. Waiting outside the door was Ike Crosby, the brother of Mollie's late mother. Ike had left New York when Mollie was still a small child. This visit of his was the first time since then that anyone in the family had seen or heard of him.

All this turned Fancher into America's most famous invalid. She was visited by a steady stream of doctors, scientists, poets, authors, academics, and clergymen, all anxious to solve the riddle of someone who was so helpless, yet so strangely gifted.

A noted astronomer named Henry Parkhurst had all the doubts a rational man of science would feel about the stories of Fancher’s odd powers. He did a number of experiments designed to show whether the young woman was a cynical hoaxer, a hysterical invalid, or…well, something else altogether. At the end of his tests, he still could not understand her, but he was convinced her paranormal abilities were genuine. (Fancher herself was unable to explain her gifts other than statements such as “I have broken the backbone of science and all the ‘ologies!”)

One day in 1887, Fancher fell from her bed, causing yet another head injury. Several days later, a friend was sitting with her when she fell into one of her sudden, inexplicable trances. When she awoke a few minutes later, she gave the man a puzzled look. “Who are you?” she asked…in a voice that was not Mollie Fancher’s.

Yes, evidently feeling life wasn’t quite weird enough already, Fancher had developed split personalities. Five of them. Everyone around her was introduced to “Idol,” an aggressive type, “Rosebud,” a sweet six-year-old, “Pearl,” an ethereal, elegant lady who wrote poetry, “Ruby,” a wisecracking, rambunctious tomboy, and “Sunbeam,” who seems to have been an extension of Mollie’s original self.

By the 1890s, Fancher's physical condition improved somewhat. She regained some of her sight, she was able to move her arms and upper body, and she ate and drank almost normally. Curiously, her relative return to health saw a corresponding decrease in her psychic abilities. 

In a newspaper interview that appeared in the "New York World," on November 12, 1915, she gave her own rationale for her long and unusually unfortunate existence, suggesting that "there must be some hidden purpose in keeping me alive and that maybe it is just to show thousands of suffering men and women that the human soul is greater than the body and can triumph over any illness or pain the body may have to endure."  Despite her near-lifetime as a recluse, she still took a great deal of interest in the outside world.  She displayed a rather wistful interest in contemporary ladies' fashions--although she thought girls nowadays didn't wear enough--and expressed her disgust for automobiles and the Kaiser.  She was also a supporter of women's suffrage.  ("I pay taxes on this house and I ought to vote.")

Fancher continued in her strange, kaleidoscopic little world until on February 3, 1916, she reached the fiftieth anniversary of her first trance state, which she wryly called her “Golden Jubilee.” The “Brooklyn Enigma” died eight days later.

It is ironic that her tombstone reads, “Mollie Fancher knew the secret of life.” While she accepted her eerie, tortured existence, she probably remained an enigma even to herself.

Fancher's grave in Greenwood Cemetery,
courtesy of Allison Meier.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company wishes to remind everyone that we all need somebody to lean on.

The cats heartily agree.

On to this week's helping of Links 'R Us:

What the hell is swimming in earth's oceans?

What the hell is flying in earth's atmosphere?

Who the hell were the Zonians?  Find out here!

Watch out for those pervert poltergeists!

Watch out for those fairies!

Lima is really booming!

Christianity on the Nile.

This may not be Alexander the Great's tomb, but it'll do for the moment.

Lovely photos of Orkney's Standing Stones.

A Liverpool woman caught between the Devil and the tax collectors.  Forgive the redundancy.

A roundup of mirages seen around the world.

A scandalous Georgian elopement.

Censoring tombstones.

Meeting up with some very strange company.

That time when American boys went to a Nazi summer camp.

A look at 1744 Boston:  Many pretty women, and no prudes.

A handy guide to Jacobean brothels.

A handy guide to 18th century pick-up lines.  Don't try these at home!

The underground cities of WWI.

If this theory is true, being an Iron Age king had its drawbacks.

A lunatic con artist running amok in the world of horse racing.

Two sleeps: A lost historical practice.  (Incidentally, I read "At Day's Close" a few years ago, and I highly recommend it.  Fascinating book.)

Hell Kitty:  The Guide to Demonic Cats.

Hail Kitty:  The Guide to Shapeshifting Cats.

A Duchess and her shells.

The Vindolanda Tablets:  A peek into the private world of Roman Britain.

Barney Gibbons, probably the Civil War's unluckiest soldier.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi, probably either the unluckiest or the luckiest man of 1945, I'm not sure which.

Personally I think a Ryan Gosling bathroom is weird, creepy, and somewhat pathetic.  On the other hand, put together a Lane Davies bathroom, and I'm there.

Are UFOs passe?

While we're on that subject, here's a look back at a 40-year-old UFO.

Another example of how science is only beginning to catch up to Poe's "Eureka."

Charles XI looks at the future.

The terror of night terrors.

I can't imagine this is a good sign.

Hey, maybe the Holy Grail is a really good salad.  Anyone ever think of that?

To anyone nostalgic for the "good old days," I have two words for you:  "Fish custard."

Seeking a pardon for a witch.

Cincinnati's courthouse riots of 1883.

Leicester's balloon riots of 1864.

Arabella Williams, little-known Georgian spy.

A 15th century farm in 21st century London.

And, finally, our song of the week:  Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy's heartbreakingly lovely cover of "Walk Away Renee."

Well, I'm outta here. See you on Monday, when I'll be presenting the story of a woman who was once America's most famous invalid.