"...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, October 12, 2015

The Distressing Circumstances at Moat Farm

The 1899 murder at Moat Farm was quite notorious in its day, despite its lack of obvious intrigue. There was no mystery about the killer or his motive. The perpetrator--a worthless wretch if ever there was one--paid the ultimate price for his act, and not even the most soft-hearted sob sister could question the justice of the verdict. It was, to put it simply, a sad, dreary affair. However, the case also featured a plethora of almost comically nutty touches--not the least of which was the bizarre personality of the murderer--which compelled me to present it as this week's offering of The Weird.

The tragic figure in our story was a fifty-six year old spinster named Camille Cecile Holland. Independently wealthy, intelligent, and not-half-bad looking. She had all the means at her disposal to build a very nice life for herself. She could have bought a fine home, enjoyed a social life, pursued whatever activities she chose. Instead, her life was a curiously empty one. She seemed content to simply drift from boarding-house to boarding-house. Her only real companion was her little dog, Jacko. She had no close friends. Her only living relatives were a niece and nephew. She was on good terms with them, but they saw little of each other. She apparently had no real hobbies or interests. Miss Holland had had only one serious sweetheart in her life--a young naval officer who drowned many years back. She still wore a ring that had been taken from his body. This estimable, and seemingly fortunate, woman led a deeply lonely and unfulfilled life.

This no doubt explains how the normally sensible Camille Holland became easy pickings for the likes of Samuel Herbert Dougal.

We do not know when and how Holland and Dougal met, but once he learned of her financial status, he began an assiduous courtship. He described himself as an ex-Army captain who was married, but had been separated from his wife for many years.

As was usual with Dougal, this wasn't the half of his life story. After being discharged from the army, he was caught forging checks supposedly signed by his superiors. Thanks to that escapade, he not only served a year in prison, but he lost his army pension. Since then, he had twice been charged with other forgeries, but had--such are the strange ways of juries--been acquitted both times. There was also good reason to believe he had committed arson for insurance purposes.

Dougal also failed to tell Miss Holland that he had been married more than once. His first wife died very suddenly and in mysterious circumstances. Dougal attributed her demise to bad oysters. His second wife died only two months after their marriage. Those infernal oysters again! he sighed. His third wife, Sarah White, was still alive (perhaps she knew better than to eat oysters provided by her husband,) and living in Ireland. And these were just his legal unions. Dougal's resume also boasted numerous mistresses, one-night-stands, and a host of abandoned illegitimate children. Naturally, he kept all these interesting details to himself.

Dougal was a suave character, with the sort of dashing charm that comes naturally to many natural-born scoundrels. When he begged Miss Holland to elope with him, even though marriage was a practical impossibility, she agreed. (So much for the modern-day assumption that respectable Victorian women were all pious prudes.) However, though she may have lost her heart to this man, Miss Holland did not entirely lose her head. She was willing to run away with him, but his other proposal--that she reinvest all her securities in his name--was firmly rejected.

The two lovers settled down in a country house in Essex called Coldhams Farm, although Dougal rechristened it with the more colorful name of Moat Farm. It was a forbidding looking place. The farmhouse--which indeed had a moat--was in a bleak area heavily surrounded by dark, ominous-looking trees. It looked more like the set of a horror movie than a romantic hideaway.

Very fitting, as it turned out.

Contemporary drawing of Moat Farm

Although Camille's money paid for the house, Dougal--without bothering to tell her--had himself named as owner on the property deed. When Miss Holland discovered this, she tore up the document and had a new one issued in her name.

Miss Holland was proving to be a good deal more troublesome than Dougal had bargained for.

In late April 1899, the couple settled into their new home, under the name of "Mr. and Mrs. Dougal." Within the first three weeks they lived there, they went through at least three housekeepers, due to Mr. Dougal's curious notion that female servants should serve as his personal harem. The final servant, a girl named Florence Havies, was so appalled by Dougal's efforts to break into her room at night that she quickly sent word to her mother to come and rescue her. Until Mrs. Havies' arrival, Florence slept in "Mrs. Dougal's" room, and took care never to be alone in the house with Samuel. Camille's reaction to her "husband's" remarkable behavior is not recorded, which is possibly just as well.

On May 19, Samuel and Camille drove off in their carriage. They told Florence that they were going to the nearby town of Saffron Walden to do some shopping. A few hours later, Samuel returned to Moat Farm--alone. When Florence asked him what had happened to "the mistress," he told her she had gone to London.

Poor Florence was terrified at the prospect of being alone with Dougal. She got no sleep that night. She locked the door of her bedroom and sat fully dressed by an open window, ready to flee if her employer came anywhere near. Fortunately for her, Dougal ignored her presence. During that night, he went in and out of the house, busy with his own urgent matters. The next morning, Florence's mother arrived to fetch her daughter. Mrs. Havies chewed Dougal out, demanded a month's wages for Florence, and the two women stalked out. Samuel now had Moat Farm all to himself.

Well, until the next day, at least, when the legitimate Mrs. Dougal turned up at the house. He told her that he had been managing the estate for "an old lady" who was now "away."

It is a sad commentary on how little of an impact Camille Holland had made on the world that no one took any notice of her disappearance. Although all her clothes and belongings remained at Moat Farm, nobody in the neighborhood gave her absence a second thought. Dougal let it be known that she was off on a yachting trip, and everyone was content to leave it at that. The only living soul who missed her was Jacko.

Camille's banker in London soon received a letter--signed with her name--asking to have a new check book sent to her at Moat Farm. These checks were used to turn over all the money in her bank account to Mr. Samuel Herbert Dougal. All of her stocks were sold, with the proceeds also going to Dougal. Another letter from Miss Holland generously turned over to him the ownership of Moat Farm.

The newly-rich Dougal became quite a popular favorite in local society. He was a gregarious fellow, with a cheerful, back-slapping manner and an engaging willingness to buy drinks for everyone at the local pub. He also bought an automobile. As it was the first one in the area, it created quite a sensation.

Dougal's social life also followed some less reputable channels. If half the local gossip is to be believed, grim little Moat Farm had been transformed into a rustic Playboy Mansion. A long string of female servants came and went at Moat Farm. The ones who accepted Dougal's requests for extracurricular service stayed a bit longer. Before long, Dougal was fighting court orders that he support children born to some of these women. When word spread that Dougal was fond of having naked women bicycle through the grounds of the estate, townspeople shrugged and muttered that some of his habits were "not nice." Mrs. Dougal agreed with this assessment. She finally had her fill of her husband and ran away with one of the farm's laborers.

To finally return to Camille Holland: It was not until early in 1903 that people began to wonder why she had yet to return from her yachting excursion. Questions about her whereabouts became so persistent that the local police felt compelled to make a search of Moat Farm. Dougal received this request with his usual geniality. Sure, he told the officers. Feel free to look around. Finding nothing but the occasional nude lady cyclist, the police left, feeling perfectly satisfied with life.

Then, someone showed Miss Holland's nephew one of the checks she had supposedly made out to Dougal. He instantly asserted that it was not in her handwriting.

After this, things unraveled very quickly for Samuel Dougal. When he tried to exchange counterfeit notes at the Bank of England, he was arrested for forgery. When his pockets were searched at the police station, he was found to be carrying some of Camille's jewelry--including the ring that had belonged to her dead naval officer.

Everyone was now very anxious to find Camille Holland. It was the first time ever that the world had taken an interest in the poor woman, albeit a bit too late in the day. A massive excavation was made of the grounds around Moat Farm. Psychics, dowsers, and cranks of various sorts all went to the newspapers giving their "solutions" of the mystery. Thousands of people flocked to the area to enjoy the show. Photographers made postcards of Moat Farm to sell to tourists. Others made a tidy sum selling food and drink at the site. The atmosphere was like a holiday camp. From his prison cell, Dougal threatened to sue the police for the way they were destroying his property.

Finally, after five weeks of searching, workmen dug up the skeleton of Camille Holland. Her remains were identified because they had been buried with the custom-made size 2 shoes she had been wearing when she was shot through the head.

Dougal, true to form, denied any involvement in Miss Holland's death. His line of defense was that the skeleton was not hers. His former lady love, he insisted, was still off yachting somewhere. When that failed to fly, he suggested that Camille had committed suicide, with the admirable thoroughness of burying herself afterwards.

While awaiting his trial, Dougal kept up a lively correspondence with his many female acquaintances, as well a number of those peculiar ladies who seem to find particularly loathsome murderers irresistible. Happily, the text of one of his letters was recorded by a student of the case. It is one of the more memorable missives in the history of true crime. Dougal wrote, “I daresay the girls have received their notices, etc., to attend next Monday at Chelmsford, have they not? There will be several from about there, and it would be a good idea to club together and hire a trap and drive all the way. It is a delightful drive through undulating country, and at this time of year it would be a veritable treat for them all. So much better and more comfortable than the tram with its three changes, and, besides, they have the four miles to get to the station in the first place. I was thinking of a child (Daughter) born on the 11th of this month might be named ‘Draga’ after the poor Queen of Servia assassinated on that day, what a dreadful piece of business. When you feel like it, please drop me a few lines and let me know how you are.”

I cannot improve on crime historian Edmund Pearson’s description of the context of this letter. After noting that what Dougal was describing sounded more “like a Sunday School picnic rather than a plan to attend a murder trial,” he wrote, “When it is further realized…that the participants, or many of them, were the mothers or prospective mothers of his children, most of us will give up seeking for adjectives to describe Mr. S. Herbert Dougal.”

Dougal was the only one surprised when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. After his appeal of the verdict failed, he admitted killing Camille, but insisted it was an accident. It was not until he was literally on the scaffold with the rope around his neck that he finally confessed his full guilt.

Dougal's victim was buried in Saffron Walden, with a tombstone inscription that is touching in its efforts to be tactful. Her epitaph reads, "In sympathetic memory of Camille Cecile Holland, of Maida Vale, London, who died at Clavering under distressing circumstances on the 19th May, 1899, aged 56 years."

Jacko was taken in by one of Camille's few friends in Saffron Walden, a Mrs. Wiskens, where, we are told, he became "the object of admiring curiosity." Such was his local importance as souvenir of one of the region's most famous murders, that after his death, Jacko was stuffed and put in a glass case in the Wiskens parlor. Reportedly, he is still on display at the Essex Police Museum.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is brought to you by The Order of Vintage Grumpy Cats.

What the hell made these patients luminous?

What the hell is this Massachusetts stone circle?

How the hell did this Chinese disk get into a Kentucky garden?

Watch out for Bigfoot!

Watch out for Spring-Heeled Jack!

Watch out for the varua ino!

Watch out for the ground-puppies!

Watch out for those grim and ghastly ghosts!

The colorful life of John C. Calhoun.

"To make Excelent Pancakes," 1707.

The world of the 12th century woman.

Some charming 19th century anecdotes about dogs.

Sort of a criminal version of "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants."

Poe and his "pathological necro-killer."

Marie Antoinette's hameau.

A Georgian female soldier.

Because you can't have too many decapitation histories.

Because you can't have too many U.S. lunatics.

The first Chaos Magician.

The death of William Wilkinson: accident or murder?

Coleridge's "psychological curiosity."

The female paleontologist who became a tongue twister.  Hold on, I think that might be giving you the wrong impression.

Jeanne de la Motte, one of the most oddly charming of grifters.  [Note:  I don't use the word "charming," sarcastically.  I've read her memoirs, and, damn it, I found myself really liking the woman.]

Did Tutankhamen steal from Nefertiti?

The use of religion in 18th century political propaganda.

If it's The Weird you're looking for, connoisseurs know you can't do much better than medieval Iceland. 

A Swedish "witchcraft island."

The horrifying 1977 Girl Scout Murders.

Astrologer to the Gestapo.

Seeing ghosts?  Take a pill!

Empress Elisabeth, truly a slave to beauty.

An 18th century "limbless magician."

The death of Frances Colpitts: an early 19th century horror story.

Egyptians weren't the only ancients to mummify their dead.

John Barclay, who was not reanimated.

Theories about the causes of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

An elephant gets his revenge.

X-ray and Pompeii.

Victorian clowns.  Click the link if you dare.

The execution of a "gentleman highwayman."


The "finger of providence" nabs an evil preacher.

How advertising shaped the English language.

And...we're done for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll be talking Victorian Murder. In the meantime, here's some early Harry Nilsson.  This has always gotten my vote for the saddest pop song ever--hits a bit too close to home, I suppose--but, man, that guy had the voice of an angel.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Book Clipping of the Day

Undine Lost in the Danube, by Arthur Rackham

This tale of "The Sea-Woman of Haarlem"--a curious fifteenth-century legend vaguely reminiscent of the famed "Green Children of Woolpit"--comes from Francis Henry Stauffer's "The Queer, the Quaint, the Quizzical" (1882.)

In the “History of the Netherlands” there is the following strange account of the Sea-woman of Haarlem :—

“At that time there was a great tempest at sea, with exceeding high tides, the which did drowne many villages in Friseland and Holland ; by which tempest there came a seawoman swimming in the Zuyderzee betwixt the towns of Campen and Edam, the which passing by the Purmerie, entered into the straight of a broken dyke in the Purmermer, where she remained a long time, and could not find the hole by which she entered, for that the breach had been stopped after that the tempest had ceased. Some country women and their servants who did dayly pass the Pourmery to milk their kine in the next pastures, did often see this woman swimming on the water, whereof at first they were much afraid; but in the end, being accustomed to see it very often, they viewed it neerer, and at last they resolved to take it if they could. Having discovered it, they rowed towards it, and drew it out of the Water by force, carrying it into the town of Edam. 
“When she had been well washed and cleansed from the sea-moss which was grown about her, she was like unto another woman. She was appareled, and began to accustome herself to ordinary meats like unto any other, yet she sought still means to escape and to get into the water, but she was straightly guarded. They came from farre to see her. Those of Haarlem made great sute to them of Edam to have this woman, by reason of the strangenesse thereof. In the end they obtained her, where she did learn to spin, and lived many years (some say fifteen), and for the reverance which she bore unto the signe of the crosse whereunto she had been accustomed, she was buried in the church-yarde. Many persons worthy of credit have justified in their writings that they had seene her in the said towne of Haarlem."

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Enigmatic Exit of William Lidderdale

On January 8, 1892, 40-year-old William R. Lidderdale left his home in Ilminster, England for a brief business trip to London. He planned to meet a surveyor, with a view to buying some property. All seemed well in his life. His career as a bank manager was both prosperous and completely above-board. He was engaged to be married to Elizabeth Chapman, a pretty young woman whom he appeared to love, and who loved him. The wedding was fixed for January 14. Some friends saw him in the train headed for London. It was later established that he had bought a return ticket. Before his departure, he gave instructions to one of his bank clerks to meet him on the following day and report to him. The surveyor Lidderdale was to meet sent a telegram explaining that he could not keep the appointment, but it is not known whether the banker ever received this message.

Two days after Lidderdale’s departure, his fiancĂ©e received a letter from him. It read:

“Arrived safely. Am sending this to Raby in case I should not see my darling tomorrow…I promised you that if ever I saw Miss Vining I would tell you, and I do so dear, at once. She has found out her old lover is dead, and those old duffers of lawyers must tell her they expected me up, so the first person I ran against on getting out of the train was her. I soon told her what she wanted, and got rid of her. She knows we are to be married, but does not seem to know the date of the wedding. Now, my sweet darling, just be happy about this. It will be all right. Excuse this haste, as I want to start off—Yours for ever, Willie.”

The next word anyone received of Lidderdale was considerably more startling. On February 10, numerous English newspapers carried a death notice:

“January 30, on Miss B.A. Vining’s yacht Foresight, William Robertson Lidderdale of Ilminster, result of accident on 8th January, alighting from carriage when in motion.”

This announcement, unsurprisingly, caused quite a commotion back in Ilminster—a commotion that would eventually grow into a world-famous mystery. Why was this notice published eleven days after Lidderdale’s alleged death? Why had his loved ones not been contacted when he had this “accident?” Why was there no record of this accident, or his subsequent death on board a yacht? Where was his body? Who was “Miss B.A. Vining?” And how could he have been fatally injured on January 8? On that date, he was seen at his London hotel, alive and well. His last letter to Elizabeth Chapman was written and posted that very evening.

Advertisements begging “Miss Vining” to come forward and explain herself were placed in all the London papers. They received no direct response. Instead, Chapman received in the mail a curious package, addressed to her in an unfamiliar hand. The package contained a Christmas card, a Jubilee sixpence she recognized as belonging to Lidderdale, a few calling cards with “Miss Vining’s” name on them, but her address erased, and five hundred pounds’ worth of banknotes. On the back of one of the cards was a message in Lidderdale’s handwriting: “Was true to you.”

This was the last we know of William Robertson Lidderdale. No sign of him, alive or dead, was ever found.

As the years went by and the strange story spread throughout Europe and America, newspapers around the world struggled to unravel the strange puzzle. The most obvious solution was that the death notice was a blind designed to hide the fact that Lidderdale had run off with Miss Vining.

However, this lady proved to be a phantom. Elizabeth Chapman and other friends of Lidderdale recalled him giving various exotic descriptions of Miss Vining—she was supposedly a rich, very beautiful American who had been deeply in love with him, but who had also tried to kill him on more than one occasion when he spurned her advances. However, no one he knew had ever laid eyes on her, although Lidderdale had spoken of her for a number of years before his disappearance. No one in the world professed to know her. No sign of her existence was ever uncovered. There was not even any evidence that a yacht named "Foresight" existed. No boat by that name was registered at Lloyd’s, nor was anyone by the name of “Vining” registered as an owner of any vessel. As far as anyone could tell, she was a vivid product of Lidderdale’s imagination, created, it was theorized, as a way of providing a background story for his planned disappearance. Years later, a newspaper reported that he had once known a “Julia Vining” before he moved to Ilminster, and theorized that Lidderdale had run off with her. However, she was described as a humble daughter of a laborer, not a wealthy American, and it is uncertain whether Julia truly existed, or was the invention of one London journalist.

If Lidderdale was not dead, no doubt his loved ones soon wished he were. The peculiar and unresolvable circumstances of his disappearance kept them in and out of courtrooms for years.

The missing man had insured his own life for hefty sums. His relatives, on the strength of the death announcement in the newspapers, tried to get the insurance companies to pay up.

Nothing doing, the companies replied. Life insurance fraud was one of the oldest games in the book, and there was no way they were going to hand over thousands of pounds simply on the evidence of a death notice that reeked of The Weird.

Lidderdale’s next-of-kin sued the insurance companies, endeavoring to prove that there really had been a Miss Vining, and a yacht “Foresight.” Unfortunately, they were never able to uncover solid evidence of either one. After years of litigation, a judge finally put his foot down and said that until the family could produce a corpse—or at least a death certificate—they would not be getting the money.

Then there was the difficulty with Lidderdale’s estate. Just before his disappearance, Lidderdale had drawn up a will leaving everything he had to Elizabeth Chapman.  His executors applied repeatedly to the probate court that the missing banker should be presumed to be dead, with an equal lack of success. For the next twenty years, the executors repeatedly petitioned the court to declare Lidderdale dead, only to be told, “Prove it.”

The Lidderdale Mystery kept detectives busy for years. They scoured the world for some sign of the banker or the elusive Miss Vining, to no avail. Did he disappear voluntarily, covering his tracks with a bizarrely elaborate cover story? How was it he was never found, after all those years of widely-publicized searches for him? Was he murdered, perhaps by the infatuated Miss Vining, taking her revenge for having been scorned by him? And where was the body? Did the rich, sinister Miss Vining even exist? People around the globe debated these issues for years, without finding any answers.

Elizabeth Chapman never married, always carrying the hope that she would be reunited with her fiancé. As far as I can tell, neither she nor anyone else ever collected the money from his estate or his insurance policies.

In 1912, during the fourth court hearing to try and establish whether Lidderdale was alive or dead, a director from his bank suddenly came forward to announce that he knew of Miss Vining, whose full name, he said was Beatrice Alice Hasledean Vining. She had no fixed abode, but spent her life traveling on her yacht. If this man was telling the truth, it is extremely peculiar that he kept this information to himself for two decades. Most likely, it was a well-intentioned, if mendacious attempt to settle the issue once and for all.

The newspapers announced that in light of this new "evidence," “The case has been adjourned in the hope that the identity of the woman of mystery and her equally mysterious yacht may be established.”

The case disappeared from the newspapers after that, so it is unknown to me if they were successful. It seems doubtful that they were. There is no record of the Lidderdale Mystery ever being solved.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is brought to you by Rubberized Cats Amalgamated.

Where the hell did unicorns come from?

Why the hell did this woman pretend to be murdered?

What the hell happened to Amy Bradley?

Watch out for those frenzied corpses!

Watch out for those goblin orgies!

Watch out for that toast!

Fanny Burney visits Windsor.

Crack-Nut Sunday, one of the more charming old customs.

The woman who became Queen of the Country Blues.

The ghosts of Los Feliz.

Black cats and witchcraft.

The enduring mystery of Josephine Tey.

A 6th century B.C. nose job.

The child who had Napoleon in his eyes.

Poe and the birth of the armchair detective.

The problem with the paranormal.: Why are so many books on the subject so lousy?

The tale of one Dead Man's Penny.

Georgian bling!

How to be Jeeves.

Blog post title of the week:  "Avert Your Eyes--You Lustful Wretches!"

The legend of the Boston Garden Monkey.

Toby, the Learned Pig.

The execution of a 17th century sorceress.

The mystery of the "witch girl" skeleton.

Indonesian islands get some very strange tourists.

A 19th century exorcism hoax.

Alternate headline: A List of Things That Are Worse Than Toothache.

We now know more of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Advice for 19th century husbands.

It's a zoo in here.

The strange case of the Charlton Crater.

The even stranger case of the Vela Incident.

A dishonest bodysnatcher.

Yale gets a little windfall from the 17th century.

The world's oldest papyrus.

An 1807 Royal Navy scandal.

A Salem witch is pardoned, albeit a bit too late.

Fun with coffin plates.

A wrestling warrior princess!

How the Georgian Era kept looking sharp.

The mystery of the Carlton House skeleton.

Letters from Indian Army soldiers, WWI.

And, finally, the Great Dog Train of Fort Worth.

Well, there you have it for another week. See you on Monday, when I'll be looking at one of the weirdest--and lengthiest--missing person cases I know. In the meantime, the Chieftains are on the march:

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

One finds many peculiar "personal ads" in the old newspapers, but this may be the most what-in-freaking-hell one I've seen to date. It appeared regularly in the "New York Evening Post" during July and August of 1807:

A report that a monstrous birth, bearing no marks of the human form, has lately occurred in this city, has within these few weeks been industriously circulated. The malignity of the infamous authors and propagators of that report, whoever they may be, has been carried so far as to fix the detestable charge upon a Young Lady of spotless innocence and merit--and, as if the villains were determined that the tale should gain belief, they have even affected to designate the Physicians who attended at the Birth.

We, therefore, who are the physicians so said to have given our attendance, and who have hereto subscribed our names do most solemnly and unequivocally declare that we have no knowledge of any such occurrence, or of any birth by the lady alluded to; and that from our souls we believe the report to have originated in the most diabolical malice, and to be totally destitute of foundation.

Dated July 31, 1807.


P.S. Attempts are making by the friends of the young lady, to trace the calumny to its source, for the purpose of inflicting legal and exemplary punishment; and a reward of One Hundred Dollars is hereby offered to any person who will give information of the original author or authors, so as to convict him, her, or them in a court of justice.

It may not be amiss to caution every person against propagating the aforesaid calumny, as, by so doing, they make themselves equally liable in law with the inventor. The peculiar nature of this case is such that the friends of the injured feel themselves justified in saying that they are determined to take every measure within their power to put a speedy end to so cruel and unprecedented a slander.

The printers of country papers, in whose vicinity the tale may have been disseminated, will vindicate injured innocence, and subserve the cause of justice and humanity, by inserting the preceding.

Does anyone else suspect that all these "vindication" efforts by the friends of this nameless young lady just resulted in an early 19th century version of the Streisand Effect?

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Witch of Ringtown; a Medieval 20th Century Murder

"True!--nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses--not destroyed--not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily--how calmly, I can tell you the whole story."
~ Edgar Allan Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Anyone who believes that we live in an age dominated by science and skepticism needs to study the history of Pennsylvania. In the rural areas of the state, a belief in witches, hexes, powerful spirits and the like was common until well into the 20th century--for all I know, it still quietly exists today. Remote farm communities saw superstition and folklore not as quaint relics of a medieval past, but as all-too real presences in their lives. Sometimes, these beliefs took the benign forms of good-luck charms, folk medicine, and positive spirituality. At other times, however, believers found themselves haunted by sincerely-held fears of curses and ghostly persecutions.

On occasion, these fears led these tormented souls to defend themselves through acts of violence, even murder. Probably the most famous example is the case of Nelson Rehmeyer. In 1928, a Central Pennsylvania "witch" named Nellie Noll convinced a young man named John Blymire that Rehmeyer had put a curse on him. Blymire and two friends, John Curry and Wilbert Hess, broke into Rehmeyer's home in order to steal a "spell book" they believed he owned. They were unable to find this book, but when Rehmeyer accosted them, the trio gruesomely killed him, in the hope of lifting this curse. The three youths were eventually convicted of the murder. One of the many oddities of the case is that the killers had never before committed any criminal offense, and after their release from prison went on to lead thoroughly normal, law-abiding lives.

Although the following "hex murder" is now largely forgotten, it was very similar to the Rehmeyer case, and, in some respects, even more bizarre.

Our story opens in 1934, in the Pennsylvania farming village of Ringtown. Life there had only a speaking acquaintance with the 20th century. Scarcely any residents had electricity or modern plumbing, and telephones were nonexistent. Among its residents was a sixty-three year old widow named Susannah "Susan" Mummey. She lived in a primitive farmhouse in the hills just outside of town with her adopted daughter Tovillia.

The Mummey farmhouse

Back in 1910, Susan had had a premonition.  A vision or dream told her that if on July 5 of that year,  her husband Henry went to his job at a local powder mill, he would die. Although she begged him to stay home on that day, he laughingly dismissed her fears and went to work as usual.

You guessed it. On that very day, Henry was killed when a workplace accident caused a violent explosion.

The tragic event earned Susan Mummey not sympathy, but fear. The deadly accuracy of her premonition caused her neighbors to think of her as a witch--and, considering what had happened to Henry, possibly a dangerous one. From that time on, Ringtown regarded her with a mixture of awe and deep suspicion.

On the evening of March 17, Susan and Tovillia were living with a boarder named Jacob Rice. Rice was staying there because he had a serious foot injury that Mummey was doctoring. (Like many so-called witches, Mummey had some proficiency in the healing arts.)

Before going to bed, Mummey went to change Rice's bandage. As she bent over his foot, the cottage seemed to suddenly explode. The inhabitants heard a frightening roar, and the living room window shattered. The wind coming through the broken glass extinguished their lamps, leaving the stunned trio in darkness. They heard a second blast, which they now recognized as the sound of a gun. Someone out in that black night was trying to kill them.

They crouched on the floor, terrified by the thought of what might happen next. But there was only silence. After a few minutes had passed, Rice finally worked up the nerve to sit up. He could see nothing, and all he heard was the sound of Tovillia whimpering in fear. He called out Susan's name, but got no response. He managed to light a lamp, which illuminated Mrs. Mummey's motionless body on the floor. He saw at once that she was dead.

The two shaken survivors sat huddled together in the darkness, waiting for the morning light to come. At dawn, Rice set out to find help. Tovillia was too hysterical to make the effort. Despite his injured foot, Rice managed to limp to the home of their nearest neighbor, which was over a mile away. This neighbor drove him into town so they could summon police.

Investigators found that Mummey had been shot once through the chest. In one of the walls they found embedded a hand-made bullet, of the sort that was common in the area.

Although the victim had led a quiet, reclusive life, it soon emerged that there was no shortage of people who might have wished her dead. Mummey was a quarrelsome sort who had feuded with most of her neighbors--something that only exacerbated her sinister occult reputation. She was believed to have turned an "evil eye" on one of her enemies, and "hexed" several others. A great sigh of relief went out over Ringwood when it was learned she was dead. In short, the police were confronted with a plethora of possible suspects.

Soon, however, their focus was centered on one man. Three days after the murder, some local boys told the detective in charge of the case that on the night Mummey was shot, they had seen a car parked on the road leading to the victim's home. No one was in the car, but they immediately recognized it as belonging to a 23-year-old named Albert Shinsky.

Shinsky was a polite, well-behaved, good-natured young man with an exemplary reputation. Everyone who knew him liked him. His family was equally well-respected in the community, and he was fortunate enough to be engaged to Selina Bernstel, a pretty, charming girl who adored him. It would be hard to think of anyone less likely to assassinate a defenseless old woman.

Shinsky's life was happy and uneventful until he reached the age of 17. Then, he gradually changed. The once-energetic boy became increasingly lethargic. He lost the energy to work, or do much of anything else. He became thin and haggard-looking. The young man became a shell of his former self, and no one could explain why. Unable to hold down any job requiring physical or mental exertion, Shinsky earned a meager living as a taxi driver for the local mine workers.

When questioned by the police, Shinsky acknowledged being near the Mummey house at the time of the murder. When asked why he was there, he calmly gave a startling reply: "I went out there to kill Mrs. Mummey."

Things only got weirder from there. Without the slightest hesitation, Shinsky treated the detectives to the strangest motive for murder any of them had ever heard. The young man explained that when he was seventeen, he had been working for a farmer who had gotten into a long, extremely bitter fight with Mrs. Mummey over property boundaries between their respective lands. One day, as Shinsky was walking through the disputed land, he saw Mrs. Mummey standing a short distance away, staring at him. Under her hostile gaze, the youth broke out in a cold sweat. He felt like there were hands gripping his throat.

From that day on, he said, he felt a constant "physical and mental torment" that sapped him of all his strength. Susan Mummey had put a hex on him.

Shinsky emotionally described how he constantly felt invisible hands on his shoulders. Pins were stuck into him. A black cat would come down from the sky and attack him while he slept. He tried going to doctors and priests, but they were of no help. What could they or anyone else do against the power of the Devil? In desperation, he consulted some local witch doctors, who gave him various amulets and spells, but they provided only temporary relief. The cat always came back.

Finally, a "spirit" came to him, explaining that the only way he could be free of the hex was if he killed Susan Mummey. So, on the night of March 17, he borrowed a shotgun, loaded it with a "magic bullet" guaranteed to kill witches, and made his way to the Mummey farm.

Shinsky did not enjoy committing murder, but, he cheerfully explained, it worked! Since Mummey's death, he was "a re-born man." He had no regrets whatsoever for what he had done. Indeed, he radiated a joy and relief that these hardened investigators found uniquely disturbing.

Selina Bernstel

Selina Bernstel confirmed much of Shinsky's story. She had no doubt that he had been "bewitched." ("My cousin used to be visited by the ghost of an old woman who cast a spell over her.") Her affection for him had a strongly maternal quality. Selina both loved and pitied this haunted young man who would tell her that she "was the only friend he had." She described him as a "little puppy dog" and a "lost soul." The hex, she quietly told the police, had begun to affect her, as well. She would periodically wake up in the morning to see a vision of Shinsky standing at the foot of her bed, his face grimacing in pain. Every time this happened, she'd find out that he had been visited by the evil cat or the spirit-figure of Susan Mummey herself, "leering and leering at him." Selina said that Shinsky had repeatedly begged Mummey to lift the hex from him, but she refused. Selina often asked Shinsky to marry her, but he refused, saying "the witch wouldn't let him."

Although Selina had not known he had committed murder, she admitted that she "knew something had happened, because Albert seemed different and more gay...He acted as if something had been taken off of him." She was too happy with his transformation to ask any questions.

After his arrest, Shinsky became something of a local hero. Other men went to the police alleging that Susan Mummey had cast spells on them, as well--hexes that were only broken with her death. Townsfolk raised a defense fund for him. The murderer himself remained happy and unconcerned. Even the thought of facing the electric chair didn't faze him. "I don't care," he said. "I'm at peace."  Selina expressed her willingness to marry him while he still sat in his prison cell, but Shinsky refused any thought of such a dismal wedding.  He told reporters he expected to be released soon, after which he looked forward to "marrying my girl."

The court hardly knew what to make of this young man. The story he told was deeply, utterly crazy, but aside from that, Shinsky appeared calm and rational. He indignantly rejected any suggestion of an insanity defense.

Psychiatrists who interviewed him thought otherwise. They came up with a diagnosis of Dementia Praecox, manifesting itself as paranoid delusions, and recommended that he be sent to Fairview State Hospital for the criminally insane. The judge in the case agreed.

Unfortunately for Shinsky, Fairview could give witches and demon cats a run for their money. It had an evil reputation, that, sadly, was entirely justified. It was an unsupervised hellhole where even basic medical care was virtually nonexistent. Guards and staff routinely abused the patients, sometimes to the point of killing them. There were sinister rumors of secret graveyards around the building. It was not a hospital, but an unregulated dumping ground, and would remain so until well into the 1970s. If you were not insane when you entered Fairview, odds were good that you soon would be.

Shinsky disappeared into this living nightmare, never, it seemed, to be heard from again. The world forgot about him until 1968, when a lawyer named William J. Krencewicz learned of the case, which inspired him to lead an effort to have Shinsky reexamined by psychiatrists. Shinsky himself was eager to have his case reopened, even if it meant standing trial for the murder if he was judged to be sane. "I was a stupid, foolish, superstitious young man when I did [the murder], but I do think I've been punished enough."

The issue of what to do with Shinsky dragged through the courts until January 1976, when a judge ruled that he was competent to stand trial. However, the authorities apparently agreed that Shinsky was indeed "punished enough," as I could not find any record that this trial ever took place. Shinsky may well have been released without ever being tried for a murder no one doubted he committed. He went back to Ringtown, where he lived quietly until his death in 1983.

I have found nothing about Tovillia's subsequent life other than the fact that she continued to live in the Ringtown area until her death in 1963. In 1938, Selina Bernstel married a Charles Betterton. She died in Towanda, Pennsylvania, in 2003.

I have long thought that the great tragedy of our species is that--despite our fondness for psychological pigeonholing--our minds and souls are too strange for us to ever understand.  How does one categorize Albert Shinsky, an otherwise sane young man who fell into the grip of a belief most people would call utterly insane?   Did that make him crazy? Or merely all too human?