"...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, July 23, 2014

Newspaper Clipping(s) of the Day, Taking the "Fun" Out of "Funeral" Edition

Illustrated Police News, 1893 via British Newspaper Archive


We tend to think of funerals as a place to say goodbye to corpses, not to create a fresh batch of them. However, anyone who has done even the quickest browse through old newspapers soon realizes that your typical funeral service is more like a war zone.

Don't believe me? Here is a mere sample of what I mean:

San Francisco Call, November 16, 1899


From the "Western Morning News," Oct. 27, 1948:
Five people were killed at a funeral yesterday when a thunderbolt struck a church near Venice. They were standing near the coffin. The church was badly damaged.

Western Australian, February 22, 1950

Yet another case of a funeral rudely interrupted by a death was reported in the "Davenport Leader" on November 27, 1900:
New Haven, Conn., Nov. 26.--With hands uplifted as she was about to deliver a prayer at the grave of Mrs. Emily Parker, a dead sister, Mrs. Sarah Grumley, Chaplain of Meriden Chapter, Order of the Eastern Star, was stricken dead.

Mrs. Grumley was seventy years old and a charter member of the chapter. She was apparently in good health when she started for the grave.

When she tottered and fell with the words of the ritual upon her lips there was consternation among the chapter members at the grave. Several fainted and the funeral service was left unfinished. At the funeral of Mrs. Grumley the members of the chapter will complete the service interrupted at Mrs. Parker's grave.

From the "Derby Telegraph," July 15, 1887:
On Monday the funeral of a negress was being conducted in a graveyard at Mount Pleasant, sixty miles south of Nashville, Tennessee, when a storm came on and the crowd ran for shelter under the trees. Nine persons stood under a large oak, which the lightning struck, killing every one instantly, including three clergymen and two sisters of the girl who had been buried.

If the lightning and the grenades don't get you, the church floor will. The "Manchester Courier," March 1, 1905:
Eleven persons were killed and forty injured by the collapse of a floor at Fleet-street African Methodist Church at Brooklyn.

They had assembled to attend a funeral of the late organist. The body and chief mourners had just arrived, and were about to enter the building when the accident occurred. It was due to rotten beams.

The church was built sixty years ago.

Some of the injured jumped out of the windows.

Sometimes, rather than Acts of God or the like, what you need to watch out for is a good old-fashioned riot. From the "Argyle Liberal and District Recorder" for March 13, 1906:



Then there was this story from the "Evening Telegraph," July 18, 1936:

Three persons were killed and many seriously wounded in a quarrel which broke out over the dead body of a woman at Pernambuco, Brazil.

Just before the body was to be buried the doctor announced that he proposed to perform an autopsy.

Members of the woman's family strongly opposed this proposal, and the parties came to blows.

Gotta watch out for those Sextons:

Los Angeles Herald, March 28, 1890

And your fellow mourners:

The "Evening Telegraph," August 15, 1866:
Baltimore, August 15.--A terrible tragedy occurred last Sunday, in Queen Anne's county, Maryland, at a place called "Hatton's When and Where." It seems that a man named Cooper, a Rebel, shot and killed two men, named James F. Johnson and Josiah Ellingsworth. Both died instantly.

The affair took place at a funeral, and jealousy is the alleged cause. All of the young men named were of the aristocracy of the region, and all were Seccessionists.


And the undertakers!

Launceston Examiner, August 8, 1927


Tombstones really need to be reclassified as dangerous deadly weapons.

Queensland Times, October 27, 1904

From the "Democratic Watchman," November 15, 1866:
The Kingston "News" tells of a singular death which occurred in Belleville, on Friday. A little girl, aged ten, daughter of a widow Brennan, while in a grave-yard, was killed by a gravestone falling over upon her.
The "Edinburgh News," May 9, 1911:
The Central News Appleby correspondent telegraphs: The lad, Arthur Holmes, who pulled a headstone upon himself while climbing for a bird's nest in Longmarton Churchyard on Sunday, died this morning at his parents' residence at Longmarton. His skull was broken right across the base.

The "Evening Telegraph," June 3, 1913:
While an interment was taking place in Greenside Cemetery, Alloa, a boy, eight years of age, named Allan Henney, the adopted son of William Henney, wool-sorter, was standing upon the plinth of a grave, when the stone collapsed and fell upon him, Several of the mourners assisted in extricating the boy from beneath the stone, and it was found that in addition to his left leg having been broken in two places he was internally injured. He was removed to the County Accidents Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries.

From the "Manchester Courier," October 5, 1901:
The death of an unknown boy was reported to the Manchester City Coroner, yesterday, which was discovered on Thursday under queer circumstances. About five o'clock a scullery-maid, employed at St. Patrick's Convent, Livesey-street, Oldham-road, noticed a tombstone had fallen down in the old cemetery. She went to ascertain the cause, and was horrified to find it resting on the right arm, shoulder, and right side of the face of a boy aged about 12 years, who was quite dead. It is presumed that the boy was climbing over the wall into the cemetery--a common practice--and caught hold of the tombstone, which is near the wall, and which must have collapsed.

However, if you really want to talk death traps--both figuratively and literally--let's talk coffins. This following image from the November 9, 1872 "Illustrated Police News" depicting the sad-but-ludicrous death of a man named Henry Taylor who attended just one funeral too many has become justly famous on the internet. However, his tragic fate was just one of many. Go too near a coffin, and you may well wind up in one:


The "Anaconda Standard," April 5, 1912:
San Francisco. April 4--Whether a pallbearer who was fatally crushed beneath the coffin at a funeral service died accidentally within the meaning of the terms of an insurance policy is the question to be solved by the superior court here in a suit filed today. The suit was brought by Mrs. Rose Rock, widow of Joseph F. Rock, who died shortly after he had been crushed beneath the falling coffin of his friend, James Murphy, June 30 last.

The "Columbus Herald," February 7, 1894:
Birmingham, Ala., Feb. 7.--Tuesday afternoon at Double Springs, near here, the body of Mrs. Amanda Harris was being lowered into the grave, Geo. Gillas, one of the pallbearers, had hold of a strap when it broke, throwing him into the grave. As he fell his head was pinioned between the head of the coffin and the grave wall. The coffin box and corpse was heavy and before he could be extricated his head was crushed and death was almost instantaneous.


Billings Gazette, November 3, 1905



Sacramento Union, November 23, 1896
You don't even need to be at a funeral to fall prey to the deadly coffins. The "Cumberland Evening Times," November 19, 1912:
Raleigh, N.C., Nov. 19.--Caught in the collapse of a casket display case, George Newton, aged 70, was killed yesterday in a local undertaking establishment, to which he had gone to buy a coffin for the burial of his wife, who had died a few hours before.

From the "Medicine Hat News," January 11, 1934:
The victim of a falling coffin, the French aviation pilot Sergeant Girardin is dead at Boulay, near Metz. He was riding uphill in a hearse, with the corpse of an old man. The hearse hit a tree, the rear door flew open and the coffin fell out, landing on the flier.

The "Oakland Tribune," August 17, 1934:
A coffin killed Daniel Kilbury, 61, of Alhambra. He died last night of injuries suffered when a casket he was unloading from a truck slipped and crushed him to the pavement.

The "Stevens Point Journal," September 7, 1928:
It was a coffin that killed Stanley Gates.

Driving a truck for an undertakers' supply company, Gates was thrown to the ground when his machine and another collided yesterday. A cement coffin box, jarred from his truck, crushed him to death.

By this point in our post, you're thinking: "All right, I'll skip the funeral and simply say farewell to the dearly departed at their wake. No problem!"

Allow me a derisive snort while I present an item from the "Illustrated Police News," June 29,1867:
A Dublin paper states that a sad accident has occurred in Youghal, involving the loss of three lives and the entire destruction of the dead body of a woman, which was burned to ashes. A man who, in company with two neighbouring women, had sat for two nights by the corpse of his sister, "waking" it, on the third night sat up to a late hour, but he appears with them to have succumbed to weariness, and fallen into a deep sleep. From that slumber they never awakened, at least one would hope so, for if the sleep were broken it was only to find death imminent, and after a brief but fearful anguish to close their eyes again in death. Wayfarers returning late saw lights burning in the cottage at an advanced hour of the night. In the morning the neighbours came for the funeral, and found the house a heap of smouldering ruins. At some time in the night fire had broken out, and clasping the quick and the dead in a fiery embrace, had reduced the dwelling and all it contained to smoking ashes.


It seems that the words heard most often at a wake are not, "Rest in peace," but "Look out below!" From the "Sheffield Independent," August 15, 1874:
An accident at a wake in Dublin again demonstrates the dangerous folly of these grim festivities, which are still popular among the lower classes in Ireland. The floor of a room fell, in which thirty persons were assembled round the body of a child only two months old, and ten persons were so seriously injured in consequence that they were removed to the hospital, where they lie, some with broken legs and arms. There has been no death.

The "Western Mail," February 26, 1877:
An unusual event took place in Cardiff at about twelve o'clock on Sunday night. A front room in Ellen-street, Newtown, was the scene of a wake, the corpse being that of a little boy, whose parents resided on the premises. At the time just mentioned the room was full of a number of sympathetic friends, who, agreeably with the custom on such occasions, were occupying themselves with story-telling. Suddenly, just as the father of the deceased had given expression to the words "I'll tell the next tale," an inexplicable noise, such as might be produced by the cracking of joists, was heard, and without further warning the entire company found themselves precipitated into a cellar beneath, the candles, coffin, and corpse being tumbled together among the people. The confusion was something extraordinary, and it took some time for the melancholy party to grope their way to the upper part of the building fortunately none were hurt, and the corpse having been removed to another room, it was decided to adjourn the wake.

The "Worcester Journal," September 27, 1856:
On Friday night an accident occurred at a wake in Killalala, which was very nearly ended fatally. During the night the floor of an upper room in which the body was laid out and the people assembled, gave way, and fell with its living weight into a cellar beneath. A scene of terrible confusion ensued.

The "Dundee Courier," September 25, 1869:
An accident of most alarming occurred in a dwelling house in Salford on Wednesday evening. The house is of a construction similar to the greater number of the houses in back streets, which are known as single houses, consisting only of a ground floor with a large cellar underneath, and an apartment above. The ground floor in the house in question was occupied by Mrs. Rosannah Murray. Wednesday evening sixteen or seventeen people (men, women, and children) met in this house between seven and eight o'clock, for the purpose of "waking the body" of Mrs Murray's daughter, who had died some time previous. The people had not been long in the house when the floor, which consisted of stone flags, supported by couplings, or bars of timber, suddenly gave way, and fell with a tremendous crash into the cellar, a distance of seven or eight feet. The corpse, the people in the house, and all the furniture were precipitated with it. The furniture, of course, was much damaged, but, fortunately, though many of the people, especially the women, were greatly frightened and put into a state of great excitement, no bodily injuries of a serious nature were sustained. The cause assigned for the accident is that the bars which supported the floor were completely rotten.

The "Edinburgh Evening News," November 23, 1883:
While a wake was proceeding in a cottage in Dublin on the bodies a woman and a child, the flooring gave way and the assembled party were precipitated into a disused well. The people and the bodies were extricated with considerable difficulty, but fortunately no person was seriously injured.

Well, there you have it. If, after reading all this, you still persist in paying your last respects in person, don't blame me if you wind up electrocuted, shot, crushed, incinerated or beaten for your pains.

On the bright side: If you think these stories were horrifying, just wait until I chronicle what happens at those grim sinkholes of death and devastation known as wedding parties.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Vanished Silk King



James Thompson gained worldwide fame and enormous wealth by becoming the “Silk King” of Thailand. When he went out for a walk on a warm April day and was never seen again, he became a legend.

Thompson led a quiet, privileged life in America until his life changed during World War Two. As a member of the Office of Strategic Services, he headed a unit sent to Thailand with the intention of helping to overthrow the country’s pro-Japan government. However, before he and his men reached the country, they learned of the Japanese surrender. His task in Thailand now was to establish an American consulate.

Thompson fell hopelessly in love with the country at first sight, and he quickly determined that it would be his new permanent home. After his discharge from the OSS, he helped found a hotel in Bangkok, the Oriental. The real focus of his attentions, though, became Thailand’s dormant silk industry. He started the Thai Silk Company, convinced he could simultaneously rescue a once-vital part of his adopted land’s culture and make himself a great deal of money.

He was right. He focused on Thailand’s tourists, showing these visitors his brightly colored, and, to foreign eyes, irresistibly exotic fabrics. His silks quickly became an international sensation, and Thompson gained worldwide fame. The charming, affable Silk King became something of a local attraction, the host to visiting politicians, royals, celebrities, and the rest of the traveling jet-set. He was by far the most well-known American expatriate in Asia.

By 1967, however, Thompson was tired and in poor health. He went on holiday in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, a popular resort spot. He stayed with Dr. Ling Tien G and his wife Helen, who had been his hosts on previous visits. It was not an ideal vacation, however. He had been uncharacteristically preoccupied and bad-tempered before and during the journey to Malaysia, and the idyllic surroundings did not appear to improve his mood. Unfortunately, he kept whatever was troubling him to himself.

On Easter Sunday, 1967, his foul mood was especially apparent to the Lings and Connie Mangskau, a friend who had accompanied him to Malaysia. All that day, he was clearly agitated about something, leaving his companions both puzzled and worried.

That afternoon, as was the custom in these tropical areas, Mangskau and the Lings went to their rooms for a siesta before dinnertime. Thompson remained on the veranda, still silently wrestling with his mysterious troubles. A short time later, Mrs. Ling heard his footsteps walking down the driveway.

Later that afternoon, a cook at the nearby Lutheran Mission saw Thompson strolling through the bungalow’s garden. Around the same time, a servant at the Overseas Missionary Fellowship observed Thompson standing on a plateau facing the estate. He was next spotted in the vicinity of the Eastern Hotel, walking on a path leading to the golf course. It was the last time anyone is known for certain to have set eyes on James Thompson.

The bungalow where James Thompson was staying when he disappeared, via Wikipedia.


When Thompson’s housemates eventually emerged from their rooms, they saw no sign of him. He was fond of going off on walks by himself, so they thought little of his absence at first. When he did not return by evening, however, they became concerned enough to go to the police.

The search for Thompson began the next morning, and wound up becoming the largest manhunt in the country’s history. It seemed like everyone in Malaysia was prowling the area for some sign of the missing Silk King.

No sign was ever found. Everyone’s first assumptions about his disappearance—that he had either fallen into a ravine or wound up the loser in an encounter with a tiger—were soon abandoned when they failed to discover any trace of his body, or even of a struggle. It seemed equally unlikely that he had left voluntarily. Thompson chain-smoked and often had to take pills for a painful gallstone disorder. He left both his cigarettes and his medication at the cottage, indicating that he was not planning any long absence. The question of what did happen to him remained and still remains a mystery.

Every high-profile disappearance inspires wild theorizing, but the Thompson case brought out a particularly rich and varied crop. Some think he was kidnapped, pointing to unconfirmed reports that on the day he vanished, several unfamiliar cars was seen in the normally extremely quiet area around his cottage. According to some of these accounts, Thompson was seen in one of them.  However, foreigners were not usually targeted by kidnappers, and no ransom note was ever sent. Neither did anyone try to claim the reward offered for information about Thompson’s disappearance.

A variation of the kidnapping theory is that he was taken by Communists wanting to coerce him into denouncing America’s involvement in Vietnam, but no evidence for that rather exotic proposal has ever surfaced. Psychic Peter Hurkos declared that Thompson was the prisoner of Communist terrorists in Cambodia. A mission actually went into Cambodia to investigate, but found no trace of Thompson.

Or, others mused, did he actually defect to the Communists? This was not as outlandish a notion as one might think. Thompson sympathized with the Indochinese nationalists and opposed America’s Vietnam policy. He often met with Indochinese Communists and was rumored to be friends with Ho Chi Minh. He was known to be on bad terms with the current Thai government, leading some to wonder if he had joined up with the Communists in order to help overthrow the regime. Or, then again, was he a double agent secretly working against the Communists?

Did he stage his own disappearance?  A businessman named Edward Pollitz, who knew Thompson personally, claimed that shortly after Thompson vanished, he saw the Silk King leave a hotel in Tahiti.  Thompson then got in a taxi and left for parts unknown.  If this sighting is accurate, it would indicate that Thompson did leave voluntarily, but does nothing to explain why.

Or did the Chinese take him—voluntarily or not--to their country to manage their silk industry?

Was he on a secret mission for the CIA?

Was he on a secret mission for Thai royalty?

Or did the royalty—or the Viet Cong—or his own company’s employees—have him killed? Or did he kill himself?

Was he murdered by robbers who then hid the body?

Or—my own favorite theory—did he wind up a prisoner in a Tahitian brothel?

Compounding the puzzle is the fact that five months after Thompson vanished, the body of his 74-year-old sister, Mrs. Katherine Thompson Wood, was found in her Pennsylvania home.  She had been bludgeoned to death.  Her murder was never solved.  Were the police in error when they dismissed speculation that her death was somehow tied to her brother's disappearance? No one knows.

Only one possible clue has ever emerged regarding Thompson’s fate. In 1985, some bone fragments were found in the Cameron Highlands. It has been speculated they might be from the body of the vanished Silk King, but to date, there has been no forensic examination of these fragments.

Whatever became of Thompson, his legacy lives on. The beautiful home he built in Bangkok to showcase his extensive art and antiques collection is now a museum. It is one of Thailand's most popular tourist attractions, with about 40,000 visitors a year.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Weekend Link Dump


The weekend's nearly here!  Take a relaxing stroll.

Hull Daily Mail, November 13, 1929, via British Newspaper Archive

Bring the cats with you, of course.

And it's on to the links:

Watch out for those Igorot Death Chairs!

Watch out for Jill the Ripper!

Watch out for that handsome Harley Street Hoaxer!

Watch out for those metal cat claws!

Really, but really, watch out for Palmyra Atoll!...

...And Crater Lake!

Florida is really sinking!...

...So is Siberia!

The strange tale of the Girl in Blue.

Ham sandwich, anyone?

Swan Upping on the Thames.

A handy guide to becoming an early modern witch.

Jonathan Wild, legendary thief-taker turned organized crime boss.

That strange sound you're hearing right now is Giorgio Tsoukalos whooping with joy.

19th century gentleman looking for a wife falls prey to a practical joke.  I guess you had to have been there.

Taking back the swastika.

"A woman poisoned by a singular method."  Indeed.

Evatima Tardo, a very unfeeling woman.

Can you solve Samuel Wilberforce's riddle?

Plinlimmon, the "noble" St. Bernard who was once the toast of New York.

Shades of Elizabeth Canning:  An 1802 case involving gypsies and an alleged kidnapping.

The kind of thing that really upsets astronomers.

Let's dance!  Oh, well, maybe not.

Searching for Mona Lisa.

A tribute to the fat, funny, and clever Queen Caroline.

"Can an Englishman ever become truly Indian?"

Down the Valley of the Shadow:  Another ill-fated search for Eldorado.

Georgian ladies were really electric!  Just not in a good way.

Throwing the baby in with the bathwater.

Given the times we're living in, it won't surprise you to learn that the Devil is making a big comeback.

How to get a personal interview with a president.  Just catch him skinny-dipping.

"Maccarony cheese."  A historical recipe that sounds pretty darn good.

While we're on the topic of food:  All hail the power of the potato chip!

The earth's magnetic field is being exiled to Siberia.

All you never thought you needed to know about bone magic.

The curious case of the Somers "mutiny."

Having an affair with an eunuch can bring dreadful difficulties.  Uh, aside from the most obvious one.

And, finally, our Song of the Week: A bit of Harry Nilsson. And, of course, puppies:



And I'm outta here for this week. See you on Monday, with the story of the mystery of Thailand's vanished Silk King.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via British Newspaper Archive


Here's one from our Mystery Fires file. This account of strange--and very unnerving--"spontaneous combustions" appeared in the "Cambridge Independent Press" for August 23, 1856:

Mr. Blower and Dr. Barker applied the Bench for their sanction to an inquest being held on a fire, articles having been several times on fire in an extraordinary manner in the house of Mr. Moreton, in the employ of the Messrs. Howard. The gentlemen were informed that the Coroner had of himself full powers to hold an inquest, and such course met the approval of the Bench. The following appeared on this subject in the "Times"of Thursday:—

During the last few days public curiosity has been excited to a very unusual pitch by a series of occurrences that would be by no means out of place in one of Mrs. Radcliffe's romances, but which will read strangely in the matter-of-fact columns of a newspaper. The several theories of spontaneous combustion have often been revived, and, in the opinion of most wise men, have been successively and repeatedly exploded. But just as late years have witnessed a revival of ghost stories, spirit communications, and direct demoniacal agency, it seems not a little likely that the old theories of spontaneous combustion are coming in for another day in their turn, if we are to judge from the extraordinary revelations which have been not only retailed in gossip, but most gravely and fully inquired into under the coroner's warrant, and before 13 men honest and true, and, we may add, picked men, of this highly educated borough. A sketch of the principal facts will probably answer the same end as report of the depositions taken before the coroner, for the result of this last course would probably be only the awakening of half-incredulous wonder and a wild curiosity. On Tuesday night, the 12th instant, an alarm of fire was raised, and, on proceeding to the scene of danger, a house abutting on the large storeyard belonging to Messrs. Howard, the celebrated implement makers, and tenanted by one of their servants, it appeared that the family had taken the opportunity of the master's absence from home to have a good cleaning down, with an especial view to the riddance of a certain pest better known to Londoners than the happy dwellers in the country. In furtherance of the latter part of this truly housewifery design recourse was had to fumigation. A vessel containing broken roll sulphur was placed in what was deemed a safe position— viz., in a bisinette, which was removed from its usual place and set the middle of the room. The sulphur was duly ignited, and the room of course vacated except the obnoxious vermin. In the space of two hours it was discovered that the sulphurous fluid had escaped the basinette, had burnt through the bottom, fired the floor, and eaten its way through the planks. Timely observation and alarm availed to arrest the progress of the fire. All was deemed safe. But on Saturday evening the head of the family returned, and on retiring to rest, and having innocently thrown his damp stockings on the carpet, what was his astonishment at seeing them ignited! Something like a panic seized the household, but at length their fears were pacified and they went to rest. On Sunday morning, while the master was attending Divine service at the Methodist Chapel, fire was again discovered in the house. Considerable consternation was occasioned to the assembly by the calling out of a fireman during service, and also the master's disappearance from the pew. These fires were suppressed: but in the course of the day no less than thirty fires broke out in different parts of the house—in the presence of visitors, most respectable and intelligent men.

Every part of the furniture in every room of the house appeared to be charged with some mysterious self-igniting gas. Smoke issued suddenly from cupboards, large and small, from almost every drawer, and even from boxes of linen and woollen materials which had not been opened for some length of time prior the Tuesday's fire. Some of the statements made before the coroner are so startling as to be nearly incredible. One gentleman laid his handkerchief down upon the sofa when it forthwith ignited. Another gentleman, while discussing the marvels of the day and washing his hands, discovered that the damp towels on the horse in the bedroom were on fire. A lady, anxious to prevent further mischief, had a short time previously examined a box containing articles appertaining to feminine apparel, and pronouncing it safe had shut it up, but going to remove it felt that it was hot, and on re-opening it discovered the contents in a blaze; but is impossible to enumerate all the strange fantasies played by this subtle and mysterious fire. Of course suspicion was soon awake, but the closest investigation afforded no ground on which to rest the surmise of foul play. On the Monday morning the phenomena, somewhat abated, reappeared, and it was found that the greater part of the property in the house was charred or burnt to tinder. Two medical gentlemen--Dr. Barker and Mr. Blower—visited the scene of the fiery mystery, and at noon made an application to the sitting magistrates (in the absence of the mayor), for sanction to their proposal submitting the matter to the coroner. The coroner lost no time summoning a jury, which consisted of the most respectable tradesmen of the town, and which proceeded to business at the George Inn. The inquest commenced at 3.30 p.m. Monday afternoon, and at 7 o'clock was adjourned to Tuesday morning at 10. On Tuesday it was resumed and concluded by 6 o'clock p.m.

In the course of this prolonged inquiry the whole of the incidents (some of which we have mentioned above by way of specimens), were deposed to, and every effort made to account for the singular occurrences. At one time there was some slight hope of establishing connexion between the fire Tuesday night and the numerous outbreaks of the following Sunday, but this idea was abandoned perforce—so far, least, as any ordinary connexion between the two sets of events was concerned. The medical testimony of the two gentlemen named above was by far the most important, inasmuch as it most distinctly abolished all preconceived explanations, and also because it indicated a most remarkable and important class of truths in practical chemistry. Without venturing to give a formal solution of the phenomena, these gentlemen were of opinion that the sulphurous fumes, in connexion with the gas of the charred wood, had charged the entire house with inflammable gas, which, in some cases by friction, in others electricity, had been from time to time ignited.

No suspicion of any person survived the first few hours the inquiry, although the jury felt that there was not ground for a distinct opinion of the matter. The depositions will doubtless be submitted to some eminent manipulators of chymical science, and it is to hoped that they will be able to give a more precise solution to the mystery which has filled many a wise head with misgivings as to the spiritual geography of the somewhat lonely house.

The verdict of the jury was as follows:—"The fire was accidentally caused by incautiously placing and setting fire to a quantity of brimstone in a pot, the same being placed a basinette, situate on the first floor of the said premises; but as the cause of the continuation of fires on the same premises, we have not sufficient evidence to shew."

This extraordinary occurrence will undergo a further scientific investigation.

As a footnote, I really miss the days when phrases like "misgivings as to the spiritual geography" would appear in your local newspaper.

This is the last known word on the matter. If these "eminent manipulators of chymical science" were able to devise a definitive solution to the mystery, I have found no record of it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Earl of Glasgow, a Horse's Worst Friend



I have attended racetracks for over half my life. During that time, I have come to know—or know of—a good many people involved in the sport, from trainers to owners to jockeys to stable workers to clockers to management to railbirds to stoopers to handicappers to turf writers to professions-that-are-best-left-undescribed. The majority of the people involved in racing are hard-working, good-hearted, engaging types who see their horses not just as meal-tickets, but objects of love, if not veneration. However, as in every branch of human endeavor, the game has its share of cretins whom I would like to see staked across the finish line as the horses come thundering down the stretch.

For all the lowlifes I have encountered in racing, I do not know of any that quite compare to James Carr-Boyle, Fifth Earl of Glasgow (1792-1869.) In an admittedly crowded field, this man was one of the very worst racehorse owners in history, and unfortunately he had the money to back up every bad instinct he had. And, as racing was his main interest in life, those instincts were plentiful.

Glasgow refused to give his horses names until they had, in his estimation, earned one. As his horses usually ran up the track, they seldom did earn them, which caused a good deal of irritation and confusion among those souls unlucky enough to work in his stables. According to one story—which, considering the Earl, I find all too credible—on the night before one racing event, he was implored to give his three entrants names. He derisively christened them "Give-Him-a-Name," "He-Hasn't-Got-a-Name," and "He-Isn't-Worth-a-Name."

This (in the words of an early biographer) "touchy, crochety, headstrong old Scotch nobleman," was a breeder of disastrous obtuseness. He showed a perverse devotion to bloodlines “of proved uselessness.” The few talented horses he had were often doomed by his impatience, stupidity, and imperiousness. It was said that "no man in the history of the turf ever brought out so many bad horses"--and he had a gift for blaming these losses on everyone except himself.  Glasgow was renowned for his fickleness and capriciousness--he was constantly hiring and firing trainers and jockeys, until finally horsemen of any sort of success in their profession refused to work for him without a three-year contract.  A contemporary turf writer noted, "No one was so wayward and difficult to please, or so munificent when he was pleased."  The only way he kept good workers was to pay them large bonuses whenever they became offended by one of his frequent scoldings.  He was in the habit of ordering that equines who were not training up to his expectations be shot on the spot. One of his trainers said his record was six executions in one morning.

Another occasion turned out more fortunately for his stable—although I suspect his animals sensed they were literally running for their lives. At one racing meet, he became so exasperated by his losses that he had six of his horses run match races with other owners, vowing that all his losers would be shot. His first horse, Senorita, won by a length and a half. Then his Knight of the Garter won by three-fourths of a length. Double Thong looked doomed, but luckily his opponent bolted, making Glasgow's entrant the winner. His next two horses also finished first. Glasgow’s Ernestine was to have met the Duke of Bedford’s Miss Sarah, but the Duke, showing a considerably more humane spirit than his opponent, felt sympathy for these horses running under an open death threat. He gallantly withdrew his entrant, leaving Glasgow to officially sweep the field.

The Finish of the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, by Samuel Henry Alken.
Glasgow's finest horse, General Peel, won the race in 1864.

As a huntsman, the Earl showed the same appalling enthusiasm he brought to racing. When quarry was scarce, he simply designated one of his huntsmen as a stand-in fox and chased the poor fellow for miles.

One of the Earl's obituaries stated: “With all his foibles he was a glorious old landmark to the Turf, and while he was still among us defying the roll of the ages, with his quaint garb and blunt speech, some may perchance have felt that his presence was a wholesome corrective to the modern spirit, which has lowered 'the sport of kings' into a doubtful trade, a contest for honour into a lust for long odds."

Tell that to anyone on four legs. I normally have a soft spot for unabashed eccentrics, even the more outrageous ones, but as far as the Fifth Earl is concerned, may a pox be on his name.

It is a pity no one ever thought to introduce him to our old friend Anna Kingsford.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Weekend Link Dump


It's summer!  Let's enjoy it!

Western News, Sept. 3, 1947, via British Newspaper Archive



Take a cue from my new hero, Otis.

Behold this week's edition of Links 'R' Us:

Where the hell was the Garden of Eden?

What the hell was the deal with these elk bones?

What the hell was the deal with this list of Sumerian kings?

What the hell was the deal with Rothschild's tusk?

One of the eerier modern mysteries: What the hell happened to Elisa Lam?

Watch out for Charles Jamrach's menagerie!

Watch out for Mrs. Caudle!

Watch out for those gloves!

Watch out for those Zeppelins!

Watch out for those Thunderbirds!

Australia is really humming!

The world is really booming!

Your nifty bit of irony for the week.

Behold, the world's oldest sandwich.  Pass the pickles.

"The Case for the UFO":  one of the world's classic Weird Books.

Some wonderful little videos of old Welsh castles.

Well, color me surprised.

The oldest known case of Down's Syndrome.

Ancient Peruvians were not space aliens. Giorgio Tsoukalos hardest hit.

Lightening up the Black Prince.  At this rate, history won't have any good villains left.

Chile has an official UFO.

Recreating 18th century dinner parties.  Only without the poxy cooks!

A guide to sailing the Super-Sargasso Sea.

Uncovering the private lives of Isaac Newton.

Another ghost catches their murderer.

Why you should always listen to those inner voices.

A look at the saintly history of the Camino de Frances.  Featuring zombie chickens.

The long history of the London Stone.

Dr. Carl Wickland, psychiatrist of the dead.

Because beauty just isn't beauty without hog jaws and whale wax.

Some controversial letters written by Warren Harding are set to finally be made public.

Wikileaks talks UFOs.

Stonehenge, meet Seahenge.

What not to do next time you visit a 17th century coffeehouse.

How to make a fool of yourself dueling.

And, finally, our song of the week.  I'm all for a good seafaring tune, but I love this tribute to the gentler pleasures of Scotland's Crinan Canal:



That's it for this week! See you on Monday--assuming my home, along with the rest of the West Coast, has not slid into the sea over the weekend--when I'll be looking at a 19th century Earl who was a horse's worst nightmare.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This story appeared in numerous European and American publications in the spring of 1851. It is reminiscent of the more famous tales of "Princess Caraboo" and "Psalmanazar."
German speculators have got hold of a new subject. It is neither more nor less than a "new man." The story--as we find it related in the Correspondenz of Berlin--attests that a stranger was picked up at the end of last year in a small village in the district of Lebas, near Frankfort-on-the-Oder, whither he had wandered, no one could tell whence. Such a circumstance could hardly have piqued curiosity in another country; but to a people fond of speculation, and situated far away from the great highways of the world, there was something strange and startling in the fact, that the stranger spoke German imperfectly, and had all the marks of a Caucasian origin. Whether the man was a common impostor, and tricked the village authorities, or whether those worthies began in their usual way to construct a history for him "out of the depths of their moral consciousness" is uncertain; at all events they looked on him as a great prize, and carried him off to Frankfort. On being questioned by the burgomaster of that enlightened city, the stranger said his name was Jophar Vorin. and that he came from a country called Laxaria, situated in the portion of the world called Sakria. He understands, it is affirmed, none of the European languages (except, we must suppose the broken German,) but reads and writes what he calls the Laxarian and Abramian tongues. The latter he declares to be the written language of the clerical order in Laxaria, and the other the common language of his people. He says that his religion is Christian in form and doctrine, and that it is called Ispatian. Laxaria he represents to be many hundred miles from Europe, and separated vast oceans from it. His purpose in coming to Europe, he alleges, was to seek a long-lost brother; but he suffered shipwreck on the voyage—where he does not know—nor can he trace his route on shore on any map or globe. He claims for his unknown race a considerable share of geographical knowledge. The five great compartments of the earth he calls Sakria, Aflar, Astar, Auslar, and Euplar. The sages of Frankfort-on-the-Oder, after much examination of the tale and its bearer, have come to the conclusion that it is true. Some men believe things because they are incredible. However, Jophar Vorin has been carefully despatched to Berlin, and is now the subject of much scientific and curious gossip in the Prussian capital. What mystification hides under the story time will probably show.

Alas, this story is all I have been able to find about Jophar Vorin, wandering Laxarian. Although the man was obviously a lunatic, a prankster, or a grifter--perhaps all three--I would like to know more about him.