"...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 20, 2014

Book Review: "The Victorian Book of the Dead," by Chris Woodyard

After reading this book, talking ravens just aren't good enough for Edgar anymore.
He wants a homicidal parrot.


Do you wake up in the morning saying, "Damn it, my life needs more undertakers who give out trading stamps!" Are you longing for stories about killer parrots? Post-mortem spontaneous combustion? Shrieking banshees, mourning bicycles, and, of course, corpse furniture?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, your answer is undoubtedly, "Hell, yes." Well, pine no more, my friends, because have I got the book for you.

As I have often said, no people on earth have ever done death quite like the Victorians. In "The Victorian Book of the Dead," long-time Strange Company favorite Chris Woodyard has done a masterful job in compiling from 19th-early 20th century newspapers, books, and journals an encyclopedic review of all the various ways our ancestors devised to turn bereavement into an epic trip down the rabbit hole.

This book is, in the author's words, "a historical look at the ephemera and material culture of mourning; a reflection of some popular Victorian attitudes towards death and the bereaved; and a macabre scrapbook." Perhaps only the ancient Egyptians rivaled the Victorians in ritualizing death--a practice that both fed and fed upon the simultaneous 19th century spritualism craze. Woodyard notes that "How we mourn our dead says something of who we are." What this book abundantly proves is that the Victorians, if nothing else, certainly "knew how to mourn." This trait, as Woodyard hints, could teach our modern death-phobic and materialist society a few lessons. Yes, the rituals of this bygone era were often silly or downright bizarre, but were such practices really necessarily stranger than modern day "happy funerals," with the ubiquitous "celebrations of life," and our habitual reluctance to confront the realities of death and mourning?

"Book of the Dead" begins, appropriately enough, with that popular staple of Victorian life, the Death Angel. Whether it took the form of an actual angel, a menacing skeleton, a little old lady, or a pigeon, Victorians loved their symbols of impending doom.

Harbingers of Death came in many forms. Woodyard examines the visions, banshees, Black Dogs, Women in Black, and other phenomena that tipped people off that it was time to break out the crape and yell for the undertaker. (Of particular note is the spiritualist who poisoned herself to ensure her prophecies of her own death came true--which certainly showed a rare sense of dedication.) My favorite in this category, however, is probably the Crumbling Phonograph Records of Doom. ("Your Hit Funeral Parade!") While most of the portents were ominous or frightening, there are also poignantly sentimental tales of the dead returning to tenderly escort dying loved ones to the Other Side.

The book's most macabre section deals not with the rituals of death, but the deaths themselves. As the old adage says, there are "a million ways to die," and by golly, the Victorians practiced all of them, and probably invented a few new methods along the way:

Death by growing a family of lizards in your innards.
Murdered at the hands...uh, beak...of an "evil-dispositioned" drug-addicted parrot.
Finished off by poisoned gloves.
Strangled by your own hair.
Eaten alive by rats.
Dispatched into eternity by a cow's moo.

Now, that's what I call really livening up the obituary column.

There is also a chapter dealing with those who made a living from the dead. Here we meet the Professional Mourners: Sometimes they were sable-clad ladies who advised newly-minted widows about the most chic all-black fashions, or, more commonly, they were literal funeral attendees-for-hire. Or perhaps jovial grave-diggers are more to your taste? Crazed cemetery guards? Tombstone Censors? Corpse barbers? Undertakers whose posh shops showcased coffins and headstones so dainty and elaborate that window-shoppers positively envied the dead?

The Victorian obsession with "correct mourning" inspired Woodyard's handy guide to "Crape: Its Uses and Abuses." Mourning wear, we learn, had an etiquette all its own that rivaled anything seen at the court of Louis XIV. Hanging that grim symbol of death outside your door had many possible uses besides the obvious: as a crude practical joke, a political protest, or simply a general display of disgust against the world. Or perhaps you would choose to display your sorrow with a black mourning bicycle? Hair jewelry? Wreaths from the dead person's clothes? Black cigarettes?

It was not just the living who had to concern themselves with the latest fashions: Elaborate burial clothing and swanky coffins for the dearly departed was a highly profitable business. Often, the deceased was buried showing considerably more style than they ever displayed while alive. Ladies sometimes made their own elaborate shrouds years before their death: a trousseau for their inevitable marriage with the Grim Reaper.

And woe be to the undertaker who neglected his trading stamps!
"Trading stamps with every funeral" is the placard that one may expect to see soon in the windows of up-to-date Chicago undertakers.

That two or three funeral directors on the Northwest Side of the city have adopted the trading stamp system to increase business was revealed yesterday when a bereaved widow cancelled an order at a downtown undertaker's because he would not give her some stamps.

Friends of hers, she said, who recently had deaths in their families were given trading stamps by the undertaker, and she insisted on getting the coupons or she would go elsewhere. 

The matter of trading stamps will be brought before the Chicago Undertakers Association at its next meeting. [page 243]

The above story was preceded by an anecdote about another new widow who demanded her stamps, declaring that "I've just lost my third and don't intend to lose a chance at a cuckoo clock into the bargain."

Despite all this careful preparation, Death has a way of spoiling even the most careful plans. "Book of the Dead" treats us to wakes where the "deceased" suddenly comes back to life to crash the party. Cats who attack the reverently laid-out corpse. And what would any collection of Funeral Horrors be without those cases where there were those irritating nagging doubts about whether or not the newly-buried had been well and truly dead?

But wait, there's more! Victorian publications were rife with exuberantly "grewsome" tales of funerals spoiled by exploding corpses, out-of-control hearses, mourners crushed by falling coffins, fatal illnesses caught from preparing the body for burial, and other unmannerly nuisances instigated by the dearly departed.

It is hard to top the spontaneously combusting corpse, though.

It was inevitable that all this post-mortem mayhem would result in some very uneasy spirits. There are many accounts of haunted cemeteries and morgues. Restless spirits would return to pester the living with wrongs they wanted to right, to avenge their murder, to give instructions about their burials (suitable burial clothes were a particular concern,) or simply because they were not ready to let go of this world. Such accounts appear throughout most of recorded history, but the Victorian era, predictably, brought forth a particularly weird and plentiful crop of such Gothic horrors.

Speaking of horrors, Victorian morbidity focused not merely on the spirits of the dead, but their corporeal remains. Stories abound of mourners refusing to allow the dead to be buried, preserving and petrifying them in various ghastly ways. Bones and various other body parts were kept as keepsakes. One enterprising widow "kept her family together" by eating her cremated husband's ashes. (Although "a little of him did perhaps go a long way.")

The high--or, if you prefer, low--point of this curious mania was devised by the Florentine professor Girolamo Segato, who developed a thankfully-lost method of petrifying human remains and turning them into furniture. Some of his handiwork still exists today.

Leave it to the Victorians to pair Ikea with Ed Gein.

"Book of the Dead" is, however, far from being a cheaply titillating assortment of ghoulish oddities. Woodyard's sober, respectful, and scholarly annotations make this volume an original look at a Golden Age in Death History. The stories dealing with the lonely, neglected burials of the poor and friendless, and the many pitiful descriptions of deathbed grief, remind us that the Victorian predilection for the outward trappings of mourning were often not mere show, but sincere demonstrations of profound sorrow.

Although most of us today do not relate to mourning bicycles or post-mortem photography, anyone who has ever experienced personal loss can empathize with the final entry in Woodyard's book: Reverend John Todd's description of the 1827 death of his nine-day-old son.
"I shall perish sooner than forget the feelings which I had clinging around our dear first-born. I know that we did not deserve him, and that it was all right; but my aching heart too frequently goes back to that dear lost one, and the gems of all the earth could not compensate for the loss of that one. Is he now alive? Shall we ever know him? Will that beautiful form ever come up again from the tomb? Oh, the agony of that moment when the little coffin-lid was actually closed! May God in mercy spare me from ever witnessing another such scene!"

In short, this book is not just fascinating history, but an excellent training manual for The Weird. Buy it. Study it. Read it to your small children before bedtime to ensure you raise really, really interesting adults.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Weekend Link Dump



Don't let this week's collection of links bend you out of shape.


Leave that to the cats.

What the hell happened to Lake Waiau?

What the hell fell from the sky in New Jersey?

Where the hell is Philip of Macedon buried?  Now we know!

What the hell happened to MH 370?  Will we ever know?

Watch out for the Big Muddy Monster!

Watch out for Teddy Rowe's Band!

Watch out for miniature coffins!

Watch out for Bakersfield clowns!

Watch out for those Golems!

Watch out for those Victorian baths!

Watch out for Tecumseh's Great Spirit!

Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas are really booming!

Look up in the sky!  It's a bird!  No, it's a plane!  No!  It's...Superman's ghost!!

Alternate headline:  "Sheep Dog Avenges Rat."

How a Confederate officer and some grave-robbers unwittingly revolutionized 20th century forensics.

"Jaws" goes to court:  The strange case of the Shark Papers.

Lord Byron:  the first Sexy Vampire?

It's a Dandy in Distress!

The long, painful death of a Siberian princess.

This guy is pretty diseased, all right.

Julia Pastrana, one of the most famous bearded ladies.

Distillery Cats:  "Personable, but with a killer's instinct."

A possible link between those mysterious Siberian craters and the Bermuda Triangle.

The Czech nurse who took "sleeping with the enemy" to a whole 'nother level.

What's even better than a poison duel?  A poison-pen duel!

The diary of a diplomat's wife.

The ghost of No. 281 Stuyvesant.

A great day for cats:  The birth of the catnip mouse.

A classic bit of historical weirdness:  The legend of the Ghoul of Glamis.

How Scotland came to be full of monuments to a crook.

How a piece of bread and an apple led to a witchcraft trial.

Just to get our weekend fun rolling, let's talk itching and scabbiness.

Uncovering Scottish Viking treasure.

The state of aqua archaeology.

Yellow fever: the proto-Ebola.

What is "masculinity?"  Depends on your era.

The latest on the Antikythera hunt.

Are these the oldest known cave paintings?

Ghost ships!  Treasure!  Tragedy!  Who could ask for anything more in a blog post?

Is this the first known recording of the human voice?

The history of wife-selling.

A Confederate soldier's gossipy coded diary.

Gods, barbarians, and Zerkon the Moorish Dwarf.  Dining with Attila the Hun sounds like something out of Douglas Adams.

Giving a whole new meaning to the term "ghostwriter."

Just for fun:  A delightful 18th century automaton clock.

Vikings: The first metrosexuals?

Waterloo, one of history's most famous "Oopsie!" moments.

A Danish 17th century Dr. Frankenstein?

A Chicago 19th century Dr. Frankenstein?

A princess does some illegal cycling.

The black cat of the Tombs.

Joan of Arc and the fairies.

Why becoming a 15th century royal necromancer was not always a great career move.

Because it's not often you get to come across the words "Ebola" "reincarnation" and "Buddhist" in the same headline.

If you want to rest in peace, it doesn't pay to tick off your undertaker.

Merry Andrew and the Ghost; or, Fun With Body-Snatchers!

19th century zombies.

The coded diplomacy of John Adams.

A wonderful assortment of medieval doodles.

The Case of the Haunted Kidneys.

Illustrations of 1893 London.

A witchcraft case from 1941.

Cleaning up the medieval era.

And finally...yes, I agree that this pretty much says it all:




We're done for this week. See you all on Monday, when I'll be turning book reviewer! In the meantime, here's a classic Welsh choral song:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

I have been given an alarming glimpse into my future, and it was published in the "Illustrated Police News" on October 1, 1870.

Yes, my friends, this will be me in fewer years than I care to think about.

A report has been forwarded to us from Newport, together with a sketch, from which the illustration in our front page has been engraved. The facts of the case are summarized as this: in a small dilapidated cottage on the outskirts of the above-named town, a Mrs. Joyton--an old lady of eccentric habits--has resided for the last four years, she herself being the only occupant of the tenement. She chose to lead a life of such strict seclusion, and was altogether so singular in her habits, that the neighbours very naturally came to the conclusion that she was a little deranged. Sometimes she would condescend to exchange a word or two with one or more of  those to whom she had become known, whilst at others she would pass them with an angry frown and a brusque manner; and when in this humour she would not vouchsafe a reply to any question.

To the surprise of everybody, for some reason or other, Mrs. Joyton was no longer to be seen in her accustomed haunts. Days paused over, and the general impression was that the poor old lady must be either dead or seriously ill. No answer had been returned to those who were bold enough to knock at the cottage door of the recluse. On Monday or last one neighbour more persistent than the rest gave a brief recital of the facts to the policeman on duty, who at once proceeded to the cottage and knocked most violently at the door. Its obstinate and eccentric occupant returned no answer; whereupon, his patience being exhausted, the policeman burst open the door.

Upon his entering the back room he discovered Mrs. Joyton in a bed, surrounded by a number of cats of every conceivable variety--black, white, brindled, tortoiseshell, and tabby were there assembled. The feline family seemed to be a very large one. One cat was on the bed with several kittens, others were on the shelf, the drawers, chairs, and ground. One pugnacious pussy flew at the policeman, who was a little disconcerted at the attack made by so strange an assailant. The old lady, who had been ill and kept her bed for some days, showered a torrent of abuse upon the head of the intruder, and commanded him to leave her apartment in a most imperious manner. He strove as best he could to pacify her by telling her that he had effected an entrance for the purpose of seeing if she needed advice or assistance, and wound up his discourse by offering to go for the parish doctor. This exasperated the invalid still more. She called the policeman an impudent fellow, and finished by throwing a basin at his head, whereupon the officer deemed it advisable to beat a retreat, and hastened at once to report proceedings at the station-house.

via British Newspaper Archive

We are glad to say, after much exhortation, the visiting clergyman of the district has succeeded in getting Mrs. Joyton in a better frame of mind. She has consented to see the doctor, and to have a nurse, if necessary; but will not brook any interference with her favourites. To be surrounded by her cats appears to be her greatest happiness.

Don't mess with us crazy cat ladies, buster. Unless you want a basin upside the head.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Joan Risch: Runaway Wife or Murder Victim?



The disappearance of Joan Nattras Risch is a disturbing story, no matter which view of the case you believe. Either a troubled woman fled her life in what was probably a futile search for happiness, or she was the victim of a terrible crime that will never be avenged.

In 1961, Risch lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She was married with two young children. On October 24 of that year, her husband Martin was away on a business trip in New York. (He was an executive in a paper company.) Neighbors described the couple--who had only lived in their home for six months--as "quiet and reserved," but showing no visible signs of any domestic trouble.  That morning, Mrs. Risch did some routine errands. Two tradesmen who visited the home later that day recalled that she seemed in good spirits.  Around mid-day she settled her two-year-old son David in for a nap, and sent her four-year-old daughter Lillian to visit at the home of a neighbor. Around 2 pm, a neighbor glimpsed Joan in the Risch driveway.  She appeared to be "walking fast or running and carrying something red."

Lillian arrived home about two hours later. She soon returned to the neighbor’s home, saying that her mother was gone, the baby was crying, and there was “red paint all over the kitchen."

What the child saw was not paint, but blood. It was type O, the same as Joan Risch's.  (Although it was never conclusively proved it was her blood.)  Investigators believed the blood came from a superficial wound which would not have been fatal.  The telephone receiver had been ripped from the wall, and a telephone directory lay open at the section showing emergency numbers.  (No such calls had been made.) A kitchen chair was overturned.  Risch's son was still safely upstairs in his crib, and the house was otherwise undisturbed.  Curiously, considering all the blood, there were no bloody footprints anywhere.  Unidentifiable bloody finger and palm prints were found on the wall.  There are conflicting reports about those prints.  Some accounts state that they were from an unknown intruder.  Others say that there was no record on file anywhere of Risch's fingerprints, making it impossible to say if they were hers, or some stranger's.

Drops of blood led from her son’s nursery to the kitchen, and then out to her car on the driveway. It was also noted that someone had made an attempt to mop up the blood with a pair of little David's overalls and some paper towels.  The trench coat Joan had worn earlier in the day was in a closet, but her cloth coat was missing.  Her purse and other belongings were also still in the house.

Neighbors later reported that an unfamiliar blue/gray sedan was parked in the Risch driveway around 3 pm, although investigators decided that what they had seen was an unmarked police car parked there some time later. (These witnesses, however, continued to insist the car had been there before police were summoned.) Later that day, other witnesses saw a disheveled woman generally matching Risch's description walking aimlessly along a nearby site where a highway was being constructed. Her legs were covered either in reddish mud or blood.  Unfortunately, no one stopped to talk to her.

That is the last we know of Joan Risch. It is anyone’s guess what happened to her or where she went. Her husband was questioned by police, but nothing was found to connect him to his wife’s disappearance, and he was quickly eliminated from suspicion. However, this left police with no possible suspects at all, and they began to publicly suggest she had left voluntarily, possibly "for medical treatment."  They pointed to the lack of evidence there had been an intruder, and declared that "certain key persons" in the case were not telling authorities all they knew.

One day early in November, an unknown woman called the Risch home at least twelve times.  The calls were answered by the missing woman's father-in-law, who reported that the caller refused to speak to him.  One of the Risch's neighbors said that on that same day, a "terribly excited" woman called her, complaining that she had been calling the Risch house, but had not been able to contact anyone she knew.  This neighbor claimed that she had gotten a similar call the day after Mrs. Risch disappeared.  This mystery-within-a-mystery was never solved, or at least publicly explained.

The investigation into her presumed kidnapping took an even more peculiar turn when it was learned that in the months prior to her vanishing, she had obtained from the library at least 25 books dealing with murder or disappearances. One book she checked out revolved around a woman who vanished, leaving nothing behind but blood stains that had been smeared with a towel. Although she had always been fond of mystery novels, many people begin to suspect that she had used these books, not as casual entertainment, but as how-to manuals to stage a “hoax” kidnapping that would leave her free to start a new life.

It’s dangerous to read too much into anyone’s taste in reading material—if I should ever, for any reason, catch the eye of law enforcement, I shudder to think what conclusions they may reach about me by examining my blogs—but there is more that gives this particular scenario some credibility. Friends said that Risch, who had a successful career in publishing before she gave it up to raise a family, was a naturally driven, ambitious woman who was frustrated as a homemaker. Although she seems to have been deeply devoted to her husband and children, they may not have been enough for her. But was this dissatisfaction enough to make Mrs. Risch--described as "a very intelligent and well controlled woman"--abandon them in such a cruel fashion?

Even before her marriage, the missing woman’s life had been deeply troubled. Her parents died in a suspicious house fire when she was only nine, leaving her to be raised by an aunt and uncle. According to some reports, she had been sexually assaulted as a child. Perhaps, it was suggested, she was so miserable being Joan Risch that she gave it all up in order to try her hand at being someone else altogether? Or perhaps, according to another school of thought, her present-day stresses and past traumas, combined with an injury from some fall in her kitchen, left her an amnesiac. Some believe she simply lost her memory and wandered blindly away, possibly—assuming the woman on the highway was Risch—making a fatal fall into the highway construction pit. To this day, there are those who believe Highway 128 is the grave site of Joan Risch. It has even been theorized that the sedan seen in Risch’s driveway was a doctor there to give Joan an abortion she wished to keep secret from her husband. Perhaps the operation went wrong and she began hemorrhaging, causing her to wander off in a state of shock?

Until the day he died in 2009, Martin Risch continued to express the belief that his wife was alive somewhere. For some years after her disappearance, he kept his old telephone number, just in case she called. He never remarried.

Or perhaps, to take the simplest, albeit grimmest, view of the case, the attractive 31-year-old was the random victim of a brutal fiend. After all, there was all that blood and those mysterious prints in her kitchen…

Friday, October 10, 2014

Weekend Link Dump


Strange Company was hoping to break this week's news....


...But the cats beat us to it.

And here's our latest edition.  Read all about it!

What the hell is on Saturn?

Where the hell are Agatha Christie's diamonds?  Now we know!

Where the hell is Ned Kelly's skull?  Now we don't know!

What the hell happened to Catherine the Great's lost treasure?  Will we someday know?

Where the hell is the Thunderbird Photo?

What the hell were the giants of Delavan Lake?

What the hell was this bear doing in Central Park?

What the hell happened in Aarslev in 1600?

What the hell happened to this boy's corpse?

Watch out for the Winsham Witch!

Watch out for Poe's haunted pen!

Watch out for those poison duels!

Superhaunts!

Superhaunts, the map!

Disturbing photos of 19th century residents of insane asylums.

Oliver Cromwell's peripatetic head.

Predicting the Saxby Gale?

Defacing Beauty, 1785.

Australia's first serial killer.

An ancient cemetery on a small Scottish island.  Not a bad place to spend eternity, I think.

Bringing Tudor music back to life.

The Devil's miners.

An "upper servant" who got pregnant:  The harrowing tale of Sarah Drake.

The man who was buried twice.

Tippi Hedren and her lion roommate, 1971.

You've heard of "Half-hanged Smith?"  Well, meet "Double-hanged Swim."

Thomas Neill Cream, a poisoner who managed to combine homicidal mania with an almost comic eccentricity.

Visions of Julia.

Horse superstitions.

A Freedom of Information request about Noah's Ark releases a flood of The Weird.

George Anne Bellamy: The rise and fall of a Georgian actress.

The great explorer Isabella Bird.

Victorians go to the beach.

Another story for the Mystery Fires file.

If the world's most boring men turn out to be surprisingly interesting, well, where does that leave us?

Hospital overcrowding, then and now.

Alice Capet, who narrowly missed out on a crown.

The posh history of Grosvenor Square.

Rip, a canine hero of World War II.

Lewis Powell, John Wilkes Booth's mysterious accomplice.

Electricity and ancient Egypt.

The remarkable fairy paintings of a criminally insane artist.

How to fake history on the internet.  Do not try this at home.

Why Rudolf Hess' food is sitting in a Maryland basement.

Some Fun Facts about the guillotine.  Children's toy, bread-slicer, and more!

Mark Twain's burglar alarm.

Some lovely old examples of hair jewelry.

Perry Mason:  Satan's Minion.

A pirate in the Vatican.

Taking it with you.

I just plain freaking love this story:  Meet Bessie Watson, the nine-year-old Scottish bagpipe-playing suffragette.

Looking for a new career?

My new favorite lawyer.

Sexual healing in the Early Modern era.

Anne, England's Bohemian queen.

That's it for this week.  On Monday, we'll look at a housewife's enigmatic disappearance.  I'll be seeing you!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This sad story is curiously like the subject of my very first post on this blog, the enigmatic "Jerome." It comes from the "Daily True Delta," (New Orleans, LA,) March 10, 1866:

Twelve years ago a family named Sawyer, living in the town of Westbrook [Maine], were surprised to find that a very superior new milch cow, carefully kept in their stables, was "drying up." This continued until Mrs. Sawyer discovered, some time after, the prints of human fingers in the soap grease barrel in the stable. Communicating this discovery to her husband, he procured help from the neighbors and a thorough search of the stable followed. An examination of the hay-mow disclosed a small hole, which, being followed up by pitching away the hay, led to a sort of den-like place in the interior of the mow. Here was found a strange being, a man apparently of about 24 years, half clothed in rags, shockingly filthy, and having no feet. One foot was missing just above the ankle: the other was gone a little higher up, the stump terminating in an oblong way, and in a manner showing that it was not the work of a surgeon nor had it received the attention of a surgeon when lost. His face and head were of average intelligence, but not a word could be got from him. He had lived there a number of weeks, subsisting on the milk of the cow and the grease. He was turned over to the town authorities and placed in the poor-house, where he now is and has been for the past twelve years.

All attempts to solve the mystery concerning this strange being have proved futile. No one has been found yet who ever saw or heard of him, and during the whole twelve years he has never uttered a word. Various expedients have been tried to loose his tongue. On one occasion he was given a bottle containing a pint of whisky. He seemed to understand exactly what it was, for he placed it to his lips and drank the whole at a draught, but it had no perceptible effect upon him. In manner, habits, etc., he is like a wild beast. In the summer he is kept in a sort of a wooden, cage-like structure in the yard. He is very shy of strangers, and will hide his head in his blankets when they approach. His quarters are comfortable, and it is impossible to give him better, for sanitary reasons.

Where the creature came from is certainly a mysterious matter. He could not have walked from a distance, as he crawls upon his knees very slowly. The only theory attempted is this: A few weeks before the man was discovered, the steamer Sarah Sands arrived at this port from Liverpool with a large number of emigrants. It is conjectured that this being might have been a burden to some one over the water. Mr. Sawyer (since deceased) hauled a load home from the steamer's wharf at that time, and it is reasoned that the man might have been clandestinely added to his load, and from thence have crept into his stable.

As was the case with his Nova Scotia counterpart, the man's identity appears to have remained unknown.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Before Salem: An Early New England Witchcraft Trial



It is now October, that month to celebrate All Things Spooky. And what says "spooky" quite like New England witchcraft? Here is an excerpt from Increase Mather's "Remarkable Providences Illustrative of the Earlier Days of American Colonisation," giving one man's account of a Massachusetts plague of poltergeists, with all the proper demonic trimmings:

As there have been several persons vexed with evil spirits, so divers houses have been woefully haunted by them. In the year 1679, the house of William Morse, in Newberry in New-England, was strangely disquieted by a daemon. After those troubles began, he did, by the advice of friends, write down the particulars of those unusual accidents. And the account which he giveth thereof is as followeth: —

On December 3, in the night time, he and his wife heard a noise upon the roof of their house, as if sticks and stones had been thrown against it with great violence; whereupon he rose out of his bed, but could see nothing. Locking the doors fast, he returned to bed again. About midnight they heard an hog making a great noise in the house, so that the man rose again, and found a great hog in the house; the door being shut; but upon the opening of the door it ran out.

On December 8, in the morning, there were five great stones and bricks by an invisible hand thrown in at the west end of the house while the man's wife was making the bed; the bedstead was lifted up from the floor, and the bedstaff flung out of the window, and a cat was hurled at her; a long staff danced up and down in the chimney; a burnt brick, and a piece of a weather-board, were thrown in at the window. The man, at his going to bed, put out his lamp, but in the morning found that the saveall of it was taken away, and yet it was unaccountably brought into its former place. On the same day the long staff, but now spoken of, was hang'd up by a line, and swung to and fro; the man's wife laid it in the fire, but she could not hold it there, inasmuch as it would forcibly fly out; yet after much ado, with joynt strength they made it to burn. A shingle flew from the window, though no body near it; many sticks came in at the same place, only one of these was so scragged that it could enter the hole but a little way, whereupon the man pusht it out; a great rail likewise was thrust in at the window, so as to break the glass.

At another time an iron crook that was hanged on a nail, violently flew up and down; also a chair flew about, and at last lighted on the table where victuals stood ready for them to eat, and was likely to spoil all, only by a nimble catching they saved some of their meal with the loss of the rest and the overturning of their table.

People were sometimes barricado'd out of doors, when as yet there was nobody to do it; and a chest was removed from place to place, no hand touching it. Their keys being tied together, one was taken from the rest, and the remaining two would fly about making a loud noise by knocking against each other. But the greatest part of this devil's feats were his mischievous ones, wherein indeed he was sometimes antick enough too, and therein the chief sufferers were, the man and his wife, and his grandson. The man especially had his share in these diabolical molestations. For one while they could not eat their suppers quietly, but had the ashes on the hearth before their eyes thrown into their victuals, yea, and upon their heads and clothes, insomuch that they were forced up into their chamber, and yet they had no rest there; for one of the man's shoes being left below, it was filled with ashes and coals, and thrown up after them. Their light was beaten out, and, they being laid in their bed with their little boy between them, a great stone (from the floor of the loft)weighing above three pounds was thrown upon the man's stomach, and he turning it down upon the floor, it was once more thrown upon him. A box and a board were likewise thrown upon them all: and a bag of hops was taken out of their chest, therewith they were beaten, till some of the hops were scattered on the floor, where the bag was then laid and left.

In another evening, when they sat by the fire, the ashes were so whirled at them, that they could neither eat their meat nor endure the house. A peel struck the man in the face. An apron hanging by the fire was flung upon it, and singed before they could snatch it off. The man being at prayer with his family, a beesom gave him a blow on his head behind, and fell down before his face.

On another day, when they were winnowing of barley, some hard dirt was thrown in, hitting the man on the head, and both the man and his wife on the back; and when they had made themselves clean, they essayed to fill their half-bushel; but the foul corn was in spite of them often cast in amongst the clean, and the man, being divers times thus abused, was forced to give over what he was about.

On January 23 (in particular), the man had an iron pin twice thrown at him, and his inkhorn was taken away from him while he was writing; and when by all his seeking it he could not find it, at last he saw it drop out of the air down by the fire. A piece of leather was twice thrown at him; and a shoe was laid upon his shoulder, which he catching at, was suddenly rapt from him. An handful of ashes was thrown at his face, and upon his clothes; and the shoe was then clapt upon his head, and upon it he clapt his hand, holding it so fast, that somewhat unseen pulled him with it backward on the floor.

On the next day at night, as they were going to bed, a lost ladder was thrown against the door, and their light put out; and when the man was a bed, he was beaten with an heavy pair of leather breeches, and pull'd by the hair of his head and beard, pinched and scratched, and his bed-board was taken away from him. Yet more: in the next night, when the man was likewise a bed, his bedboard did rise out of its place, notwithstanding his putting forth all his strength to keep it in; one of his awls was brought out of the next room into his bed, and did prick him; the clothes wherewith he hoped to save his head from blows, were violently pluckt from thence. Within a night or two after, the man and his wife received both of them a blow upon their heads, but it was so dark that they could not see the stone which gave it. The man had his cap pulled off from his head while he sat by the fire.

The night following, they went to bed undressed, because of their late disturbances, and the man, wife, boy, presently felt themselves pricked, and upon search, found in the bed a bodkin, a knitting needle, and two sticks picked at both ends; he received also a great blow, as on his thigh, so on his face, which fetched blood; and while he was writing, a candlestick was twice thrown at him; and a great piece of bark fiercely smote him; and a pail of water turned up without hands.

On the 28th of the mentioned month, frozen clods of cow-dung were divers times thrown at the man out of the house in which they were. His wife went to milk the cow, and received a blow on her head; and sitting down at her milking work, had cow-dung divers times thrown into her pail. The man tried to save the milk, by holding a pigg in side-wayes under the cowes belly; but the dung would in for all, and the milk was only made tit for hogs. On that night, ashes were thrown into the porridge which they had made ready for their supper, so as that they coudd not eat it; ashes were likewise often thrown into the man's eyes as he sat by the fire; and an iron hammer flying at him, gave him a great blow on his back. The man's wife going into the cellar for beer, a great iron peel flew and fell after her through the trap-door of the cellar; and going afterwards on the same errand to the same place, the door shut down upon her, and the table came and lay upon the door, and the man was forced to remove it e'er his wife could be released from where she was. On the following day, while he was writing, a dish went out of its place, leapt into the pale, and cast water upon the man, his paper, his table, and disappointed his procedure in what he was about ; his cap jumpt off from his head, and on again, and the pot-lid leapt off from the pot into the kettle on the fire.

February 2. While he and his boy were eating of cheese, the pieces which he cut were wrested from them, but they were afterwards found upon the table, under an apron and a pair of breeches; and also from the fire arose little sticks and ashes, which flying upon the man and his boy, brought them into an uncomfortable pickle. But as for the boy, which the last passage spoke of, there remains much to be said concerning him and a principal sufferer in these afflictions: for on the 18th of December, he sitting by his grandfather, was hurried into great motions, and the man thereupon took him, and made him stand between his legs; but the chair danced up and down, and had like to have cast both man and boy into the fire; and the child was afterwards flung about in such a manner, as that they feared that his brains would have been beaten out ; and in the evening he was tossed as afore, and the man tried the project of holding him, but ineffectually. The lad was soon put to bed, and they presently heard an huge noise, and demanded what was the matter? and he answered, that his bedstead leaped up and down; and they (i.e. the man and his wife) went up, and at first found all quiet, but before they had been there long, they saw the board by his bed trembling by him, and the bed-clothes flying off him; the latter they laid on immediately, but they were no sooner on than off; so they took him out of his bed for quietness.

December 29. The boy was violently thrown to and fro, only they carried him to the house of a doctor in the town, and there he was free from disturbances; but returning home at night, his former trouble began, and the man taking him by the hand, they were both of them almost tript into the fire. They put him to bed, and he was attended with the same iterated loss of his clothes, shaking off his bed-board, and noises that he had in his last conflict; they took him up, designing to sit by the fire, but the doors clattered, and the chair was thrown at him; wherefore they carried him to the doctors house, and so for that night all was well. The next morning he came home quiet; but as they were doing somewhat, he cried out that he was prickt on the back; they looked, and found a three-tin'd fork sticking strangely there; which being carried to the doctors house, not only the doctor himself said that it was his, but also the doctors servant affirmed it was seen at home after the boy was gone. The boys vexations continuing, they left him at the doctors, where he remained well till awhile after, and then he complained he was pricked; they looked and found an iron spindle sticking below his back : he complained he was pricked still; they looked, and found there a long iron, a bowl of a spoon, and a piece of a pansheard. They lay down by him on the bed, with the light burning, but he was twice thrown from them, and the second time thrown quite under the bed. In the morning the bed was tossed about, with such a creaking noise as was heard to the neighbours. In the afternoon their knives were, one after another, brought, and put into his back, but pulled out by the spectators; only one knife, which was missing, seemed to the standers by to come out of his mouth. He was bidden to read; his book was taken and thrown about several times, at last hitting the boys grandmother on the head. Another time he was thrust out of his chair, and rolled up and down, with outcries, that all things were on fire; yea, he was three times very dangerously thrown into the fire, and preserved by his friends with much ado. The boy also made, for a long time together, a noise like a dog, and like an hen with her chickens, and could not speak rationally.

Particularly, on December 26, he barked like a dog, and clock't like an hen; and after long distraining to speak, said, "There's Powel, I am pinched." His tongue likewise hung out of his mouth, so as that it could by no means be forced in till his fit was over, and then he said 'twas forced out by Powel. He and the house also after this had rest till the 9th of January; at which time the child, because of his intolerable ravings, lying between the man and his wife, was pulled out of bed, and knockt vehemently against the bedstead boards, in a manner very perillous and amazing. In the day-time he was carried away beyond all possibility of their finding him. His grandmother at last saw him creeping on one side, and drag'd him in, where he lay miserable lame; but recovering his speech, he said, that he was carried above the doctor's house, and that Powel carried him; and that the said Powel had him into the barn, throwing him against the cart-wheel there, and then thrusting him out at a hole; and accordingly they found some of the remainders of the threshed barley, which was on the barn-floor, hanging to his clothes.

At another time he fell into a swoon; they forced somewhat refreshing into his mouth, and it was turned out as fast as they put it in; e're long he came to himself, and expressed some willingness to eat, but the meat would forcibly fly out of his mouth; and when he was able to speak, he said Powel would not let him eat. Having found the boy to be best at a neighbours house, the man carried him to his daughters, three miles from his own.

The boy was growing antick as he was on the journey, but before the end of it he made a grievous hollowing; and when he lighted, he threw a great stone at a maid in the house, and fell on eating of ashes. Being at home afterwards, they had rest awhile; but on the 19th of January, in the morning, he swooned, and coming to himself, he roared terribly, and did eat ashes, sticks, rug-yarn. The morning following, there was such a racket with the boy, that the man and his wife took him to bed to them: a bedstaff was thereupon thrown at them, and a chamber-pot with its contents was thrown upon them, and they were severely pinched. The man being about to rise, his clothes were divers times pulled from them, himself thrust out of his bed, and his pillow thrown after him. The lad also would have his clothes plucked off from him in these winter nights, and was wofully dogg'd with such fruits of devilish spite, till it pleased God to shorten the chain of the wicked daemon.

All this while the devil did not use to appear in any visible shape,, only they would think they had hold of the hand that sometimes scratched them; but it would give them the slip. And once the man was discernibly beaten by a fist, and an hand got hold of his wrist, which he saw but could not catch; and the likeness of a blackmore child did appear from under the rugg and blanket, where the man lay, and it would rise up, fall down, nod, and slip under the clothes, when they endeavoured to clasp it, never speaking anything.

Neither were there many words spoken by Satan all this time; only once, having put out their light, they heard a scraping on the boards, and then a piping and drumming on them, which was followed with a voice, singing, "Revenge! Revenge! Sweet is revenge!" And they being well terrified with it, called upon God: the issue of which was, that suddenly, with a mournful note, there were six times over uttered such expressions as, "Alas! me knock no more! me knock no more!" and now all ceased.

The man does, moreover, affirm that a seaman (being a mate of a ship) coming often to visit him told him, that they wronged his wife who suspected her to be guilty of witchcraft; and that the boy (his grandchild) was the cause of this trouble; and that if he would let him have the boy one day, he would warrant him his house should be no more troubled as it had been. To which motion he consented. The mate came the next day betimes, and the boy was with him until night; since which time his house, he saith, has not been molested with evil spirits.

Thus far is the relation concerning the daemon at William Morse his house in Newberry. The true reason of these strange disturbances is as yet not certainly known : some (as has been hinted) did suspect Morse's wife to be guilty of witchcraft.

One of the neighbours took apples, which were brought out of that house, and put them into the fire; upon which, they say, their houses were much disturbed. Another of the neighbours caused an horse-shoe to be nailed before the doors; and as long as it remained so, they could not perswade the suspected person to go into the house; but when the horse-shoe was gone, she presently visited them.

I shall not here inlarge upon the vanity and superstition of those experiments, reserving that for another place; all that I shall say at present is, that the daemons, whom the blind Gentiles of old worshipped, told their servants, that such things as these would very much affect them; yea, and that certain characters, signs, and charms, would render their power ineffectual; and, accordingly, they would become subject, when their own directions were obeyed. It is sport to the devils when they see silly men thus deluded and made fools of by them. Others were apt to think that a seaman, by some suspected to be a conjurer, set the devil on work thus to disquiet Morse's family; or, it may be, some other thing, as yet kept hid in the secrets of all this trouble.

This was not the end of the troubles for the Morse family.  That same year, Morse charged the "seaman," a man named Caleb Powell, with bewitching the family.  Powell stood trial, but was acquitted.  In the following year, Morse's own wife, Elizabeth, was indicted for "having familiarity with the Divil contrary to the peace of our sovereign lord the King." She was convicted of the offense, and sentenced to hang. Fortunately, she was later granted a reprieve by Governor Bradstreet.

The deputies of the court which had convicted Elizabeth Morse took umbrage at this act of clemency, and petitioned to have the case reopened. Additional testimony against Elizabeth was heard in 1681, (her neighbors appear to have long suspected her of witchcraft, possibly due to her calling as a "healer" and midwife,) but the court seems to have taken no further action against Mrs. Morse.  The elderly woman died a few years later, undoubtedly worn out by her ordeal.

John Hale, in his 1702 book "A Modest Inquiry Into the Nature of Witchcraft," described how on her deathbed, Elizabeth Morse "was in much darkness and trouble of spirit, which occasioned a judicious friend to examine her strictly, whether she had been guilty of witchcraft, but she said no: but the ground of her trouble was some impatient and passionate speeches and actions of hers while in prison, upon the account of her suffering wrongfully; whereby she had provoked the Lord, by putting some contempt upon his word. And in fine, she sought her pardon and comfort from God in Christ, and died so far as I understood, praying to and resting upon God in Christ for salvation."