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

Monday, September 29, 2014

Arsenic is a Girl's Best Friend


"If you commit murder for insurance money, or for mere pleasure, make it wholesale. Never stop at one."
-Edmund Pearson, "Rules For Murderesses"


In that notable club, "The League of Accused Poisoners," Marie Besnard ranks up there with Adelaide Bartlett and Madeleine Smith in the prized "How the Hell Did They Get Away With It?" category.

Besnard was born in provincial France in 1898 to well-to-do farmers. In 1920 she married Auguste Antigny. Soon after the wedding, Marie let everyone know that her husband was a poor, sickly creature who would not survive for long. Sure enough, in 1929, after a long period of sickness, he died of tuberculosis—at least, that was the official verdict at the time.

Scandalously soon after Antigny’s death, Marie was consoling herself with a dashing young fellow named Leon Besnard. They quickly married, to the despair of his relatives (her new sister-in-law was fond of referring to Marie as “this horror of a woman.")

The newlyweds lived happily and prosperously together. They owned land, a vineyard, fine horses. Marie, it was rumored by their ever-antagonistic neighbors, found an extra measure of contentment in the person of their handsome young German farm-hand.

All in all, life for the Besnards seemed pure sunshine except for one small cloud: Marie’s nearest and dearest displayed an alarming tendency to drop stone dead around her. The fact that the Besnards profited financially from all these burials was a curious coincidence. Over the next ten or fifteen years, the list of fatalities included:

Leon’s Aunt Louise. Died after drinking from a bottle of wine the Besnards had given her.  When Leon learned—during her funeral—that she had left her money solely to his mother and sister, he angrily threw some holy water on her grave and stalked off, fuming.

Marie’s father. Died immediately of a “cerebral hemorrhage” after taking some medicine his daughter gave him.

Marie’s mother.

Leon’s father. Bad mushrooms. Much later, the investigation into his death inspired Marie to utter one of the greatest lines in criminal history: “I can’t imagine how the doctor found arsenic in him; I was not even there.”

Leon’s mother. Pneumonia. So they decided.

The Besnards’ best friend, Toussaint Rivet. Marie was his wife’s heir. The next fatality on the list should be no great shock by this point. It was…

…Toussaint’s widow Blanche. After her husband’s death, she gave her house to the Besnards in return for a small stipend of money and free lodging for life. That life did not last for very long after the deal had been signed. Death certificate ruled “aortitis,” or an inflammation of the heart.

Leon’s sister Lucie. She was found hanging in her house. The verdict was suicide, even though she was an extremely devout Roman Catholic and had shown no desire whatsoever to end her life.

Leon’s cousin Pauline Bodineau. Ate a bowl of lye thinking it was her dessert. The sort of simple mistake that could happen to anyone. She was followed in death one week later by…

Her sister Virginie Lalleron, who made exactly the same error with what must have been a remarkably appetizing-looking stash of lye. Before her death, she told a policeman that Leon was trying to take her stash of gold away from her, but she was ignored.

In the midst of all this carnage, Marie learned that Leon was having an affair, and his days were also swiftly numbered. Shortly before his demise, he told his lady friend, “If I die, see there is an autopsy.” He knew his Marie.

Soon after Marie became a widow a second time, she was arrested, not for the reasons you might be assuming, but because she couldn’t resist broadening her résumé by forging the signature of one of her lost loved ones to a money order. She was sent to prison for two years.

In the meantime, someone finally noticed that Marie had left quite a trail of corpses in her wake. They were all exhumed, and they were all (including Antigny) found to contain whopping amounts of arsenic.

Once the relevant authorities took a peek at the analyst’s report, they wasted no time bringing Marie back to the dock early in 1952, on far more serious charges than forgery.

After the prosecution had presented the court with this monotonously long list of dead bodies and poison analyses, and pointed out that thanks to all these deaths, Marie had acquired the collected wealth of two families, it was unanimously felt that this was an open-and-shut case if ever there was one. It didn’t help Marie’s case that she so looked like a professional poisoner. She was a pale, forbidding-looking woman, who, in the black she had had to adopt so frequently, looked like a sinister possum. When asked to comment on the remarkably high mortality rates that surrounded her, she would sigh about her "poor darlings" and croon in a high, nasal voice, “I pray for my dead every day.” Onlookers didn’t doubt that, but they could not help but wonder with a shudder just what she was praying for.



This wealth that had landed Marie in the dock was, ironically, able to provide her with an absolutely top-notch defense team. When they arose to begin their seemingly hopeless task, they had quite a surprise for everyone. They contended that, whatever Marie’s doings may have been, the Marseilles lab that had analyzed the bodies was an amazingly inept and sloppy institution. They seemingly could not perform the simplest tasks without making a bungle of the business. The lawyers were able to make a plausible case that no report coming from this lab could be trusted.  In addition, the defense was able to introduce the possibility that arsenic in the soil of the cemeteries may have leached into the bodies. The increasingly flustered and angry medical men were, against their will, miraculously transformed into witnesses for the defense.

With these witnesses hopelessly discredited, the case against Marie collapsed like a sand castle when the tide rolls in. The court adjourned. In the meantime, while Marie sat in prison, several informers went to the police with the news that Marie had tried to hire them to kill Leon's girlfriend and several other neighbors who were gossiping about her.

However amateurish the lab work may have been, the authorities were convinced they had a human scorpion on their hands, and they were determined she not get away with it. The court met again. Although they brought on different scientists, from different labs, who came up with essentially the same damning findings, the defense vigorously mounted challenges to each and every single word the expert witnesses said. The end result was another adjournment while the court decided how to handle the conundrum of a very guilty-looking defendant who had very little utterly unassailable evidence against her.

Marie’s third trial came in 1961. (Since the conclusion of her second trial, she had been free on bond.) By this time, both the prosecution and the public were so weary of the whole thing that they threw up their hands and allowed her to have an acquittal. She died in 1980, no doubt quite content at the results of a lengthy job well done.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Weekend Link Dump


Strange Company is always glad to see the cats devoting themselves to literature.



Ernie's currently studying Shakespeare.  Next week he moves on to Schopenhauer and Newton's "Principia."

Here are the links, hot off the presses:

What the hell are these beached green mystery eggs?

What the hell is The Buzzer?

What the hell is hovering over Portsmouth?

What the hell is hovering over Florida?

What the hell is sailing in Chaleur Bay?

Watch out for those Butterflies of Doom!

Watch out for Mad Jack Churchill when he's got his bow and arrow out!

The Finsbury Murder:  An alcohol-laden tragedy from 1870.

Martin Van Butchell, who turned his wife into a conversation piece.

Remember that old line about how a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged?  Well, an anomalist is a skeptic who's been mugged by The Weird.

Some lesser-known but remarkable ancient artifacts.

Well, other than that, her story was true...

Arson and Homicide, the cats who helped keep New York City safe.

Pig-Faced Lady Mania.

The ghost ships of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Devil dogs!  With quotes!

The 15th century investigation of a royal assassination.

Phrase of the week:  "Horseless-carriage face."

Feeling Louzy in the Early Modern Era.  Do not click this link unless you want to feel itchy for the next day or so.

Jealousy and the Scotch Giantess.

A contemporary description of the East End of London, 1766.

Back to the beard?

Want to be a true Regency beauty?  Get out the bullock's gall and raw veal.

Your science "Oopsie!" story of the week.

"Touring With Towser": a sweet little slice of dog/automobile history.

Perhaps some souls are better off not being reincarnated.

The case of the ancient monastery, the locked library, and the mysteriously missing books.

Pirates in fact and fiction.

The Literature of Laughing Gas.  It all reads pretty much the way you'd think it would.

Scared to death by a medical devil.

A series of vicious home-invasion murders in Long Island, 1883.

This link provides a bit of a blast from my personal past.  Back in the day, my father was a Hell's Angels, and my mother was the classic "biker chick."

Yes, I'm serious.  Now, stop laughing until I finish my story.  Anyway, my mother still has a copy of this "Life" article, because although she didn't appear in the magazine, she knew many of the people in it.  It gave her a good chuckle.  (Incidentally, you should see her annotations to Hunter Thompson's book about the Angels.  She insists the book is a bunch of sensationalist crap.)

The Language of Beer!

A farewell to Hamish, the handsome king of a Scottish town.

Meet Sylvester, our badass cat of the week:

And, finally, let's get the weekend rolling with my favorite love song. (Warning: It contains one rather NSFW but utterly hilarious punchline.) I remember the first time I heard this one. My best friend Marcy and I were listening to the old KROQ ("the ROQ of L.A.!") when this came on. We laughed like mad through the whole thing, and at the end agreed that there was nothing for it but to go out that very day and get copies of the record. (Young 'uns, this was back in the prehistoric era when you had to spin big plastic pancakes on things called "turntables" in order to hear music.)

This helps explain why we were known as the Weird Sisters of our school.

Ah, memories.



See you all on Monday, when I'll be discussing arsenic for fun and profit.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day



This "extraordinary case" was reported in the "Royal Cornwall Gazette," January 22, 1820. It difficult to know for sure if the authorities were dealing with something from the Mystery Fires file, a classic "poltergeist centers destructive activity around young girl" episode, or simply a junior psychopath.

On Saturday last an investigation, which excited the greatest interest, and lasted till a very late hour, came on at this office before J. E. Conant Esq., the Sitting Magistrate.

Elizabeth Barnes, a girl 16 years of age, was brought up in the custody of Plank, the officer, charged by Mr. John Wright, linen draper, of Foley place, Mary-le-bone, on suspicion of having at several times set fire to his house and furniture. She was also charged with having, by some extraordinary means, set fire to the wearing apparel of Mrs. Wright his mother, at various times, by which her clothes were burned off her back, and injured her so dreadfully that her life is despaired of. The office was crowded to excess.

Mr. Wright stated, that the prisoner had been servant in the house for some time past but they never suspected her of any thing wrong until they were induced, from the following most extraordinary circumstances, to entertain an idea that she had intentions of destroying the house and family by fire. Wednesday morning, Jan. 5, about half past 8 o'clock, his mother was sitting in the parlour by herself, and the prisoner was in the shop alone; his mother was seriously alarmed by a fire which broke out in the shop, which did considerable injury, and it commenced by some means in one of the drawers in the counter. Friday, Jan. 7. about eleven o'clock in the morning, his mother was sitting by the fire in the kitchen, the prisoner being the only person with her, and on rising she had not gone as far as the door before all her clothes were on fire, and had it not been for speedy assistance in putting out the flames, she would have been burned to death; she was burned dreadfully. The next day (Saturday) about 12 o'clock in the morning, on witness's return home, he had not been long in the place before he was alarmed by the dreadful screams of his mother, who was in the kitchen; he proceeded there, and again found her enveloped in flames; he succeeded in putting them out: there was scarcely any fire in the grate at the time. The prisoner was the only person with her, and when her clothes caught fire his mother was more than eight feet from the grate. No suspicion was at this time formed on the prisoner, and she was ordered to protect his mother; on the Sunday he was in the parlour, and his mother and the prisoner were in the kitchen together, but being alarmed by her screams, he ran down stairs, and found her again covered with flames; he put a rug over her. and put the fire out, by which he saved her life. Part of her clothes were burned to a cinder, and, her flesh was materially injured; the prisoner had just left the kitchen at the time this happened and when his mother was crossing the kitchen she found herself again in flames; her clothes were burned off her back; she did not know by what means she caught fire, but was fully confident that no spark flew on her; she thought something supernatural attended her. She described when the flames touched her skin, that she felt it like knives crossing her. The prisoner when this happened burst out laughing, although Mrs. W.'s life was in peril; the presumption on his mind was, that the prisoner had thrown something on her to cause the burning.

On the Sunday his mother was placed under the protection of his sister, but happening to go into the kitchen, where the prisoner was, her clothes, by some unknown means, again caught fire; her violent screams alarmed Miss Wright, who went down stairs and found her mother all in flames, she tore off her clothes as well as she could, but she was injured so dreadfully by the fire, that she was put to bed; they left her apparently asleep, but in a short time after they were again alarmed by her screams, and on going up stairs they found her in bed surrounded by fire, the bed and the curtains being all in a blaze, and she attempting to extinguish them; the house and property were much injured. The prisoner was afterwards sent up stairs, and she came down again saying the room was all on fire. They went upstairs and found one of the rooms all in flames; they were with much difficulty put out; the next alarm was on Tuesday evening, at half past eight o'clock, when he returned home his sister met him and said the place had been in the utmost confusion, and again on fire; the counter (a fixture) was literally destroyed, and the place was filled with smoke and fire: there are two drawers belonging in the counter, the one marked A. and the other B.; the fire commenced in the the drawer A., which was injured, and that marked B., without the least symptoms of fire in it, was given to the prisoner to take into the coal vault; she took it down, but shortly returned, saying the vault was all on fire; on proceeding thither he found the coals all on fire; engines arrived and it was put out; the drawer was lying there; the family were now in a serious state of alarm, and Mr. Edon, a neighbour, proposed sitting up all night with Miss Wright to watch the house. The prisoner was ordered to go to bed at eleven o'clock, at which time she went, but she shortly returned, begging them to go up stairs, that Mr. Bannister's room (one of the lodgers) was on fire; they went up stairs to Mr. Bannister's room and found him going to bed, and calling out fire; they were not satisfied, as they smelt fire, and witness opened his sister's bed room door, when he was nearly knocked down by the flames and smoke rushing upon him; the room was filled with smoke, thick and dense, and the room all in a blaze. He went to a mahogany chest of drawers the day after, all of which were locked except one, on opening which the flames rushed out on him, and the drawers partly were burnt to a cinder.

At four o'clock in the afternoon of the same day, another fire broke out in the same room, although firemen were employed to stay in the house, and had stopped up the preceding night.

The following morning, about eleven o'clock, another fire broke out in an apartment up stairs, and did considerable injury. The prisoner, on the discovery of the fire, was seen close by the door, under very suspicious circumstances, and he ordered her instantly to quit the house. He spoke to Mr. Lockin of the Fire Office. The officers of this establishment were employed to make every inquiry, and since the prisoner had quitted the house they had not undergone the least alarm. His mother was confined to her bed, and was under the care of a surgeon, without the least hopes of recovery.

Miss Wright attended in a very weak condition, and corroborated every thing her brother had stated.

Plank, the officer, here stated that he had made every inquiry into the characters of the lodgers, which were very good.

Mr. Bannister, one of the lodgers, said he was porter in the employ of Mr. Irwin, hatter, of Oxford street. On the night of the fire be heard some person walking in the apartment over him, and afterwards heard them come down and heard them enter Miss Wright's chamber. He thought it was the prisoner. Shortly after he was alarmed by hearing the chamber was on fire, it was adjoining his apartment.

Mrs. Bannister corroborated the above.

The prisoner, in her defence, denied the charge, and said her mistress's clothes caught fire accidentally. She knew nothing of the other accidents.

Mr. Conant said, of all the cases he had ever heard of, he never knew of one to equal the above in atrocity, and he had no doubt but the prisoner was guilty of something which he was afraid could not he brought home against her, without the attendance of Mrs. Wright; the evidence was defective, unless it came from her own mouth. She being unable to attend, and taking the prisoner's youth into consideration, he would order her to find bail to keep the peace towards her until Mrs. Wright was able to attend herself. Mr. W. assured the Magistrate that he would use every entreaty to make her come forward, but her situation at present was most dangerous.

I have been unable to find anything further about this case. I assume poor Mrs. Wright died before she was able to give her testimony, which might--or might not--have helped cleared the matter up. If this was the case, presumably Elizabeth Barnes was released for lack of evidence, leaving the mystery of what happened in the Wright home forever unsolved.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Case of the Libelous Yo-Yo

Over ten years ago, an aerial photograph of Barbra Streisand's Malibu mansion was included in over 12,000 images of the California coastline taken as part of a professional project documenting coastal erosion. Streisand somehow got wind of this fact, and in 2003 sued the photographer for invasion of privacy.

At the time she filed the suit, the image of her mansion had been downloaded from the photographer's website a grand total of six times--two of those times by the singer's attorneys. No one else on planet earth knew or cared that this aerial shot of her home was included in the database.

After she went to court, of course, that all changed. When her lawsuit became publicly known, millions of people went to the photographer's website, eager to see what all the fuss was about. This innocuous photo of Streisand's roof went viral, appearing all over the internet. If Streisand had only ignored the photo, it would have gone completely unnoticed. Instead, her own hypersensitive desire to play censor drew all eyes to the offending image.

And she lost the lawsuit, to boot.

Ever since, the phenomenon of someone inadvertently drawing attention to something as a result of their efforts to bury it has become known as "the Streisand effect."

I humbly suggest that the term should be renamed "the William Blennerhassett effect."

William Blennerhassett


At the time our story opens, in the year 1932, William Lewis Rowland Paul Sebastian Blennerhassett had been a member of the London Stock Exchange for the past thirty years. He could trace his family back to the 14th century, when a Blennerhassett had served as Mayor of Carlisle. Numerous Blennerhassetts had served in Parliament. William himself had earned a DSO for his service in Military Intelligence and the Foreign Office.  He had been a delegate to the League of Nations. In the 1920s, he even published two novels set in revolutionary Russia. He was a rich, respected, highly respectable family man, justly proud of his illustrious heritage. Unfortunately, as events would shortly prove, he was also utterly lacking in humor or any sense of proportionate response.

On the morning of May 26, as Londoners read their "Evening Standard," they saw featured within the pages of the newspaper an ad for a yo-yo company. It told the tale of a "worthy citizen" named "Mr. Blennerhassett," who became addicted to playing with yo-yos. It closed with the words, "To-day, he is happy in a quiet place in the country, and under sympathetic surveillance he practises Yo-Yo tricks...So beware of Yo-Yo, which starts as a hobby and ends as a habit."

I'm not sure of the wisdom of an ad that touts its product as a likely gateway to madness and the asylum, but never mind that.

Image via Blennerhassett Family Tree


That day, when our Mr. Blennerhassett went to work, he found himself the target of a great amount of good-natured teasing about his fondness for children's toys and his descent into insanity. He was horrified to be greeted by the same light-hearted mockery when he visited his club.

Blennerhassett was distinguished. Blennerhassett was dignified. Blennerhassett was a pompous ass. He found this raillery quite galling. The more he thought about this appalling insult to his reputation, the more he fumed.

Aside from his slightly unusual name, and the fact that, like the fictional yo-yo maniac, he occasionally lunched at Pimm's, there was no resemblance between the imaginary Mr. B. and the real thing. However, William decided there was nothing for it but to scream for his solicitor and slap these defamatory toy peddlers with a libel suit.

Hell hath no fury like a Blennerhassett scorned. Faster than you could flick a yo-yo, a special jury was called to solemnly sit in the Royal Court of Justice, where our outraged stockbroker hoped to see his grievances redressed.

Prosecution witnesses, when endeavoring to show what damages the plaintiff had suffered as a result of this ad, made the argument that, as members of his profession were forbidden to advertise, this yo-yo ad might be mistaken for an unlawful bit of self-promotion. Therefore, it was "defamatory innuendo."

The defense countered this with, "If you wanted to advertise yourself as a member of the Stock Exchange, would you select a picture of yourself being escorted into a madhouse with a Yo-Yo?"

When the plaintiff himself took the stand, all he could do was pout about how his co-worker's teasing made his workday so unpleasant, he was reluctant to go to the office each morning.

The defense lawyers had great fun with Mr. Blennerhassett.

"Has not the name Blennerhassett been used for years by comic writers, here and in America?"

The plaintiff had to admit the truth of that remark.

"Is the portrait in the advertisement in the least like you?"

Blennerhassett declined to answer that question.

"Do you play Yo-Yo?" they asked him.

"No!" he replied.

He was asked if, like his fictional counterpart, he had ever played golf at Walton Heath?

Again he replied in the negative.

"Were you in the habit of eating lobster at Pimm's?"

"Much to my cost, I'm afraid I was," he replied.

"And are you a regular there for luncheon?"

"Yes," said Blennerhassett.

"When was the last time you ate there?"

"1928."

"Apart from the name, is that the only matter in which you resemble the gentleman in the advertisement?"

Understandably reluctant to describe himself as a yo-yo addicted maniac, Blennerhassett had to answer in the affirmative.

"Do you know of a single living person who has thought a penny worse of you because of the advertisement for Yo-Yo?"

Blennerhassett was forced to say, "No."

The defense's parting shot was, "Tell me, have you any sense of humour?"

"You must ask other people about that," Blennerhassett huffed.

Luckily, the defense refrained from pursuing the topic with the plaintiff's acquaintances. This could have been embarrassing.

Before both sides had even finished with their evidence, the judge put a halt to Blennerhassett vs. Novelty Sales Services Ltd. The ad in question, he sighed, could not be called defamatory. Judgment was entered for Novelty Sales Services. With costs.

The suit could hardly have been called a complete waste of time. The audience in the courtroom was kept in gales of laughter throughout the proceedings, and the British newspaper-reading public was also greatly amused by it all.

Sadly, all the amusement was directed at William Blennerhassett. His lawsuit, by bringing such attention to him and the dreaded yo-yo ad, did exactly what he had sought to prevent.  Our upright, clean-living, reputable stockbroker transformed himself into a national laughingstock. It took him a long time to live the episode down at the Stock Exchange and his club.

But on the bright side, at least he had the satisfaction of knowing that he brought additional, indelible fame to the grand name of Blennerhassett.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Weekend Link Dump


Strange Company says, "Smile!"


You're on Candid Cat Camera.

Here's a snapshot of This Week in Weird:

What the hell are these deep sea mutant mushroom creatures?  And how soon will it be before the horror movie music kicks in and we begin to regret having found them?

What the hell is hovering over Normandy?

What the hell is hovering over Budapest?

What the hell are the Mughal Celestial Spheres?

What the hell is going on in India?

What the hell is this Greek archaeological find?  Alexander, is that you?

What the hell is hitching a ride on this comet?

Who the hell killed Charles Woodburn?

Watch out for those Deadly Double Dice!

Watch out for those haunted microwaves!

Watch out for the Kraken!

Watch out for Jack the Clipper!

Watch out for those hot sodas and clam punches!

Watch out for those Ed Wood short stories!

Watch out for the Lagarfljótsormurinn!  Just typing the name is nearly enough to finish you off.

In which we learn that the Georgian Era spent a lot of time arguing about snuff.

The British pilot who had his own German fan club.

The Legend of the Dueling Poison Pills.

The Czech Spring-Heeled Jack who became a symbol of freedom.

Proof of dream telepathy?

More proof of dream telepathy?

More evidence indicating that people in a "vegetative state" are not as unaware as we think.

Arsenic, Cyanide, and Strychnine:  Three of the things that made the Victorian Age great.  In the minds of some of us, at least.

I'm sure I'm the only one who remembers this post I did last year about actress Adah Isaacs Menken. Anyway, I was rather pleased to come upon this ghost story involving one of her husbands, boxer John Heenan.

A possible clue to the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask.

"Her curses on you":  An epistolary revenge!

A handy guide to alien abductions.

Hanging around with John Lee and Joseph Samuel.

Decoding the Martellus Map.

The Case of the Bewitched Pig, 1924.

Black magic in 1970s Northern Ireland.

"Lady's Maid":  What we now call a "fashion consultant," but with lower pay.

Because every parent wants a little black magician around the house.

The book theft that killed an 18th century composer.

Okay, so it all started with Napoleon III combating a wizard infestation in Algeria...
And then things got weird.

Aw, kids are cute, aren't they?

Free booze, cute shoulders, and pie-selling: Bad reasons to marry.

Blog headline of the week:  The Witch of Scrapfaggot Green.

Captain Belstead, popular crook.

In search of Antikythera.

King Silence:  What it was like to be a deaf child in Victorian England.

Have you just failed an exam?  Blame the polar bears!

How Confederate gunpowder led to some slightly NSFW limericks.

How actress Ellen Terry got really bugged out.

Excavating a Chinese grandma.

Your "Ouch!" story of the week.

Handy device for the little ones?  Or medieval punishment?  It's both!

More war veteran cats!

Just in time for Halloween:  Why bother with investigating haunted houses when you can make ghosts in the privacy of your own home?

The goldfish probably made for more interesting viewing than the TV shows.

"Modern Seduction, Or Innocence Betrayed: Consisting Of Several Histories Of The Principal Magdalens, Received Into That Charity Since Its Establishment. Very Proper To Be Read By All Young Persons; As They Exhibit A Faithful Picture Of Those Arts Most Fatal To Youth And Innocence; And Of Those Miseries That Are The Never-Ending Consequences Of A Departure From Virtue," and more examples of the epic greatness of 18th century novels.

And, finally, say farewell to this week with the dimming of the day:



See you all next week, when I'll be looking at the toy ad that sparked a libel suit.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day



Being the well-known sentimentalist that I am, I thought it was about time for this blog to showcase a tale of True Love.

True Love Strange Company Style, that is.

From the "Evening Telegraph," December 29, 1909:

The very latest thing in mystical romance here on earth is an elopement of a married lady with a ghost.. The circumstances are vouched for, and the matter is of too serious import to be dismissed lightly. The story of the amorous ghost and the lady of his choice begins in the New World and ends in the Old with the arrival of a stern husband.

The lady is Mrs. Carrington, the wife of Mr. Hereward Carrington, and she has related to the American papers the story the weird runaway will-o'-the-wisp wanderings on the path of ghostly romance.


The importance of this strange, uncanny incident is emphasised by the fact that Mr Hereward Carrington was a member of the Special Committee of three of the Society for Psychical Research, consisting of the Hon. Everard Fielding (brother of the Earl of Denbigh and hon. secretary of the Society), Mr W. W. Baggallay, and himself.


They were appointed to investigate the psychic phenomena alleged to be produced through the notorious Italian medium Eusapia Palladino.

Mr. Carrington's spiritual orthodoxy may be realised by the fact that he is wholly satisfied with the genuineness of Eusapia's feats, although when the latter gave a seance at Cambridge before Prof. Sodgwick and Mr. Neville Maskelyne, the latter discovered that the lady was an acrobat rather than a medium.

It was claimed that psychical objects moved in her presence without contact.

Mr. Maskelyne discovered that her practice was to place her feet under the table and tip-tilt her chair back to its furthest limits.

Then, when two experimenters held the little finger and thumb respectively of one hand, under the impression that each had a little finger, she used her free hand to rattle tambourines behind her.

Mrs. Carrington claims to be the first woman to have eloped with a spirit, and now she proposes writing a book detailing the whole of her experiences with her spook sweetheart.

It was about thirteen months ago when her phantom lover made his first ardent vows to her.

The best description of the ecstatic moment is given by Mrs. Carrington herself:-

Unseen fingers crept over my shoulders and down my arms as I sat at the piano. As iron leaps and dances under the magnet, so I tingled with joy. Divine music poured out at my fingertips and flashed across the keys. Soft, sweet, intangible lips pressed against mine. I could hear swift breaths. It was my demon lover's first spirit kiss.

The "demon lover's" name, it. appeared later, was Kovery of Westmoreland. What "Westmoreland" this may be no one knows. There is at least one Westmoreland in America, and there may be another.

A savage land, holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover.

Although Mrs. Carrington has never seen her attendant wraith, she claims to have "sensed" him. That he must be a veritable Adonis among the Nothings one must surely be convinced, for with sparkling pen she describes him as having hair soft as flax, eyes sparkling like diamonds in the night, and his figure as tall, slim, and fair.

Conversation between the two was conducted by planchette (the ouija board of the Southern necromancers); and the spirit lover sent many passionate declarations by this means.

Here are a few of the flowers and sweets what may described as hot and strong protestations :—

"Helen is mine"
"It is Hell to love and leave you."
"Helen! Helen! My spirit is tortured for you. I love you! I love you! Why don't you respond? I am bound to another world, but would be happy did I not have to leave you."

The ghostly wooer signed his name with the ouija pencil as "Kovery of Westmoreland," and so hypnotic was his touch, so ardent and alluring his breathless whispers, that the lady ran away with him first to London, and finally to Naples.

There the amorous spook told her to study music; Mrs. Carrington is an accomplished pianist.

At the same time, by a strange and truly remarkable coincidence, a message came to Mrs. Carrington from her mother in the spirit world saying that she would be happier studying music than anything else.

It was just at this interesting juncture that Mr. Carrington, who was bent on studying the alleged phenomena of Eusapia Palladino, discovered his wife, and promptly commanded her to return home.

Whether the ghostly lover has dissolved himself in a flood bitter tears at this ending of his daring romance, or whether he still biding his time, faithful and ardent to the end, with a sort of Martin Harvey pessimistic optimism, who shall say?

Those who dabble in psychic mysteries in England are anxiously awaiting fuller details of this eerie romance.

[Note: Alas, I have been unable to discover any more about this unusual ménage à trois, but I fear these human/spook romances seldom turn out well.]

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Green Bicycle Murder

Bella Wright, via Wikipedia


The tiny English villages of Stoughton and Gaulby could have passed for the towns featured in "Midsomer Murders": Quiet, green, cozy, quintessentially British. And like Badger's Drift, Fletcher's Cross, Midsomer Magna, or those other locations in that peculiarly blood-drenched fictional county, these real-life towns once spawned their very own bizarre, utterly baffling death.

And unfortunately, there was no Chief Inspector Barnaby or Sergeant Troy to tell us at the end who killed Bella Wright.

Wright, a native of Stoughton, was twenty-one years old at the time of her death. She came from a poor family, and had had to work ever since she left school at the age of 12. She had a number of suitors--at least one of whom was fairly serious--and, from all we know of her, was an attractive, intelligent, self-sufficient young woman.

On July 5, 1919, she had a day off from her job at a rubber factory. She spent what would prove to be the last day of her life sleeping in and writing some letters. After bringing the letters to the post office, she returned home, and, at about 6:30 pm, set off again on her bike in order to visit her uncle in the nearby village of Gaulby. When she arrived, the uncle, George Measures, was with his son-in-law, James Evans. They saw that another cyclist, a young man, was accompanying her. When Wright came in, she commented casually that the man was "a perfect stranger," adding that he would probably be gone by the time she was ready to leave.

However, when she emerged from her uncle's cottage about an hour later, the man was still there. Measures and Evans heard him say, "Bella, you have been a long time. I thought you had gone the other way." Wright gave no sign of being concerned or displeased by the stranger's continued presence. The man chatted casually with Evans for a few minutes, and he then bicycled off with Wright.

Some forty minutes later, a farmer named Cowell was herding cattle along a small, secluded road about two miles away from Measures' home. He and his cows stumbled upon an appalling sight: The body of Bella Wright. Her head was bloody, and her bicycle lay sprawled on the ground. Her body was still warm, indicating that she had died only a short time earlier.

Cowell assumed she had died from an accidental fall. He placed the corpse on the side of the road, and sent for help. When a constable and a doctor arrived, they also assumed that they were dealing with nothing more than a tragic mishap. Although the road was lined with high hedges, there was a gate near the death scene, which led into an open meadow. This fact was given no significance at the time.

The next morning, the constable examined the spot where Wright died, and realized that her death was no accident: A .45 caliber bullet marked the spot where her bloody head had lain. A closer examination of the corpse revealed a bullet had passed through her head.

The policeman made another discovery that has sent crime historians into fits of confusion ever since: The nearby gate was marked with bloody claw tracks. There were also no less than twelve sets of blood-marked tracks leading back and forth from the site where Wright's body was found to the gate. A large black bird--it was never decided if it was a raven, a rook, or a carrion crow--was found in the nearby meadow, dead. The bird's stomach was full of blood, leading to the highly gruesome assumption that it had gorged itself on Wright's blood before dropping dead from overeating.

Measures and Evans gave police a detailed description of Wright's mysterious new friend, who was now the prime suspect in her murder. He was about in his mid-thirties, of medium height, and with greying hair and a high-pitched voice. The men also recalled that he rode a distinctive green bicycle.

Investigators hounded every green-bicycle-riding man in the county, but they were all able to prove that on the fatal night, they were nowhere near the scene of the crime. After six months of effort, Scotland Yard still had no idea who had killed Bella Wright, or why. The young woman's murder seemed fated to drift into the category of unsolved mysteries.

Then, in February 1920, it looked as if the case would finally be solved by a canal boat. It was passing down a river--bringing, ironically enough, coal to the factory where Bella Wright had been employed--when the towrope caught on something. A boatman saw that the "something" was a green bicycle. Fortunately, the boatman remembered the Wright mystery, causing him to drag the canal and haul the object up. When police came in to search the canal, they also found a revolver holster with some cartridges inside. Some of these cartridges resembled the bullet found near the murdered girl's body. The icy-cold Wright case was suddenly heating up very nicely.

The number plate and any other identifying marks had been sanded away from the bicycle. However, police found that whoever disposed of the machine had overlooked one small spot that gave the serial number. Through this number, they were able to determine that the bicycle had been sold to a Ronald Vivian Light.

When the police tracked Light down, they found a quiet, nondescript mathematics teacher in Cheltenham. He had been teaching at the school for only one month. His service in World War I had left him shell-shocked and somewhat deaf, which led to him being discharged in 1919, after which he went to live with his mother in Leicester.  His teaching position was the first job since leaving the army.

Ronald Light


When informed that his green bicycle had been found at the bottom of a canal, Light reacted in the stupidest way imaginable: He lied, fibbed, babbled, obfuscated, and generally radiated panic. According to Light, he had never owned a green bicycle. He had never been near Gaulby. And, most importantly, he had never once so much as laid eyes on Bella Wright.

The police countered Light's taradiddles by introducing him to Measures and Evans, who immediately identified him as the man they had seen with Bella just before her death. Two adolescent girls, Muriel Nunney and Valeria Caven, stated they had been bicycling in the general area of Wright's murder several hours before her death. They claimed to recognize Light as the man who had menacingly followed them around for a time, badly frightening them. And, of course there was the evidence of the bicycle and the cartridges. Light was quickly put under arrest.

At his trial, the prosecution case looked utterly damning, with the added cherry on the top of Light concealing evidence and then lying about it. How could the math teacher possibly escape the gallows?

There was one way: Light's lawyer, Sir Edward Marshall Hall. Hall was the Perry Mason of his day, a brilliant defense attorney gifted with an ability to present his case with great charm, oratorical skills, and histrionic ability. He was renowned for being able to talk rings around the most cast-iron prosecution cases and hypnotize juries into believing virtually anything. He was, in short, a very guilty-looking defendant's best friend.

Hall blandly informed the court that he was not denying that the bicycle was Light's. His client had also been riding with Wright on the night of her death. He had indeed been the man seen by Measures and Evans. There was, he explained with his usual imperturbable suavity, an explanation for everything.

In contrast to his previously shifty behavior, Light made an excellent appearance on the stand, appearing dignified and truthful. He stated that on the evening Wright died, he left home for a bicycle ride. He never saw the two girls, Muriel Nunney and Valeria Caven. As he was riding, he saw a girl standing at the side of the road examining her bicycle, and he stopped to offer assistance. He determined that her front wheel was merely somewhat wobbly. They rode off together, chatting amicably. The young woman told him that she was going to visit friends in Gaulby, but that would not take long. Light said he took that as an invitation for him to wait for her.

Light said that after Wright entered her uncle's cottage, he waited around for about ten minutes. When she failed to reappear, he decided to go back home, but noticed that one of his tires had gone flat. By the time he repaired his machine, he saw Wright was emerging from the cottage. He testified that he never addressed her as "Bella": He merely said, "Hello, you've been a long time."

They rode together for about ten minutes, until he had more trouble with his tire and had to stop and walk his bicycle the rest of the way home. The girl went on her way alone, and that was the last he saw of her. A couple of days later, he read in the paper of Wright's death. He realized she was the girl he had met bicycling, and that he himself was the suspect wanted for questioning. Light admitted that the thought of being mixed up in a murder investigation caused him to lose his head and behave very foolishly. He broke up his bicycle and threw it into the canal, along with his old revolver holster from the war. “I didn’t make up my mind deliberately not to come forward,” he explained sheepishly. “I was astounded and frightened at this unexpected thing. I kept on hesitating and, in the end, I drifted into doing nothing at all.” 

Light told this story convincingly, and stuck to it during five hours of brutal cross-examination. When Hall questioned the two girls, Muriel and Valeria, he did such an expert job of shredding their credibility, suggesting that they had made up their story out of a desire for publicity, that by the end of the trial the judge advised the jury to disregard their testimony altogether. Hall also seriously damaged the assumption that the bullet found on the road was necessarily the one that had killed Bella Wright. He argued that the bullet found was so heavy, that if it had been used to shoot the victim, the exit wound would have utterly destroyed the back of her skull, particularly if it had been fired at close range. He suggested that she was killed accidentally, by someone hunting in the nearby field. And as for the bullet being the same caliber as the ones in Light's holster, so what? One could find millions of similar bullets all over England. Hall pointed out that absolutely no motive had been presented for Light to shoot Miss Wright. The two were strangers. There was no evidence of a quarrel, and the victim had not been sexually assaulted.

Hall also, as was his wont, went heavy on the melodrama.  He emotionally reminded the jury of Light's war record, and how he had been shell-shocked due to his service to his country.  The lawyer suggested that this earlier trauma had been responsible for Light's strange and suspicious behavior after Wright's murder.  Hall pointed out that Light was the sole financial and emotional support for his widowed mother.  What a cruel injustice it would be to put this poor, troubled, hard-working man in prison for a crime he so clearly did not commit.

By the time Hall finished speaking, the courtroom was left thinking the great victim in this case was the defendant, not Bella Wright.

After all the evidence had been presented, the jury deliberated for three hours before agreeing on a verdict of "Not guilty." Edward Marshall Hall had done it again.

After his acquittal, Light changed his name until the publicity died down, and in 1934, married a widow with three children. He lived an unremarkable existence until his death in 1975.

Of course, an acquittal is not always proof of innocence. Many students of this case still believe Ronald Light was Bella Wright's murderer.  Many sinister things about the ostensibly respectable war veteran were unknown to his jury. When he was 17, he was expelled from school for "lifting a little girl's clothes over her head." As an adult, he tried to rape a 15-year-old girl, and admitted to "improper conduct" with a child of eight. One has to wonder if young Muriel Nunney and Valeria Caven were as fanciful as Edward Marshall Hall claimed.

In 1914, Light was fired from his job at a railway. He was suspected of setting fire to a cupboard and drawing sexually explicit graffiti in a bathroom. He lost a later job at a farm because he was believed to have set fire to some haystacks. While he was in the army, his father committed suicide, reportedly at least partly out of despair over his peculiar son.

On the other hand, it could be argued that even if Light was a pervert and a pyromaniac, that did not necessarily also make him the killer of Bella Wright. It is possible that his underhanded behavior after her death--hiding his bicycle, lying to the authorities--was simply out of fear that his sleazy past would become known and he would lose his teaching job.

But if he did not shoot the young woman, who did?  And, no matter who killed her, what was the motive?  Wright's death, in the words of one crime historian, retains "considerable claims to be regarded as the most fascinating murder mystery of the century."

And that's not counting the even weirder mystery of what killed that damn bird.