"...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

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter Sunday

To celebrate the day Strange Company style, I present to you the most sinister Easter bunny I've ever seen:

White House Easter Egg Roll, 1929.  Via Library of Congress.

Within five minutes after this photo was taken, Bunny strangled that little girl and buried her body in his secret den under the Rose Garden, where it lies unknown to this day.  Count on it.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company is bustin' out all over.

Along with the cats.

Another day, another fake Edgar Allan Poe quote.  The "Allen" part is just the frosting on the stupid cake.

So, who's up for a little cadaver dissection poetry?

The beginning of the decline and fall of my favorite actress, Clara Bow.

The time an old Brooklynite battled a ghost in order to get his hands on some brandy. Needless to say, the ghost won.

Another ghost, this one from the Georgian era. Meet the dreaded Long Margery and her squeaks of doom.

Uncovering the grim history of Duffy's Cut.

An amazing Edwardian-era Welsh mansion gets a makeover.

In which we learn that Louis XIV had quite a beak on him.

The good news:  When a charming lady named Josephine became engaged, she got this lovely ring.  The bad news: She got Napoleon along with it.

Mystery Bloops.  With real-time audio!

"Hand Grenade Throwing As a College Sport."  The British Library has the only known catalog entry for this book.  Rule Britannia!

In case you're keeping score, yes, the Shroud of Turin debate will go on until the end of the world makes it all irrelevant anyway.

Castle Ring:  A Circle of High Strangeness.  Eh.  It all sounds like a weekend at my house.

Flapper power!  Climbing the Great Pyramid in high heels, 1920.

The Cat and the Frog:  An Improving Tale For Children that might actually help improve the little buggers.

Whatever happened to Miss Bearthina Hampton?

Undergraduate History, Illustrated.  I have seen the future, and it quite frankly scares the bejesus out of me.

See you Monday, gang, when I'll relate the heartwarming tale of Los Angeles' most beloved hammer murderess.  Fun for the whole family!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

In 1939, an elderly Englishwoman named Ada Constance Kent disappeared. Robbery was soon ruled out as a possible motive.  Her cottage was found to be in perfect condition and nothing seemed missing--except Ada--but no clue to her whereabouts could be found.

Then, ten years later, at the request of her bank, her home in Essex was searched one more time. A skeleton was discovered in her bedroom.

Mystery solved, right?

Well…not necessarily. All the skeleton did was elevate this missing-person case from the ordinary, if puzzling, to the downright bizarre. Kent’s cottage had been carefully searched at least three times since her disappearance. Her friends were adamant that there was no way they could have missed a body lying by her bed. It must have been there only since the last time her home was inspected in 1942.

The newspaper reports are maddeningly contradictory about the identity of this skeleton. Some accounts say Scotland Yard did not believe this body was that of the missing lady—which would simply be piling weird upon weird—but most reports assert this was indeed her, and it is a fact that shortly after this body was found, a death certificate was issued for Kent.

But even if this was the missing Ada Kent, how do we explain her wandering bones?

Monday, March 25, 2013

The P. G. Wodehouse/A. A. Milne Feud

P. G. Wodehouse, via Wikipedia

There are few things I find more entertaining than the sight of two writers hurling bricks at each other. Although Edgar Allan Poe perfected the art of the serial literary spat, I have a special fondness for the feud between P.G. Wodehouse and A.A. Milne. Wodehouse is (old Edgar aside) my chief literary idol, and it pleases me that he gained a victory that was not only moral, but witty.

In the 1920s, Wodehouse and Milne were friends, although it was an association based largely on mutual admiration for each other’s talents than any real personal warmth. The two men were incompatible. Wodehouse was an amiable, uncomplicated man with a gift for taking life as it came. Milne was simply incompatible with everyone. He was intelligent and ambitious, but small-minded, thin-skinned, and as far as I can determine, utterly lacking in anything even vaguely resembling a sense of humor. (In 1952, his son Christopher gave an interview stating “I shall never get over my dislike of being the ‘real live Christopher Robin.’” The elder Milne’s reaction was to rewrite his will.) Wodehouse was once reported to have said that he had started a “Try to Like A.A. Milne Club.” There were no takers, until one man joined, only to resign a week later. “Since joining the association,” he explained, “I have met Mr. Milne.”

A. A. Milne, via Wikipedia

Despite all this, the two writers remained on ostensibly good terms until the 1930s. During that decade, not only did Wodehouse’s genius shine as brightly as ever, but his public acclaim kept increasing, culminating with an honorary doctorate from Oxford in 1939. Milne, on the other hand, seemed a writer on the way out. His books still sold, but he sensed his best days were past. Milne was a jealous nature, and Wodehouse himself believed he became increasingly resentful of "Plum's" success, seeing him more as a rival than a friend. 

During the ‘30s, Milne increasingly turned his attention to politics. He was originally an ardent pacifist, but when Britain entered World War II, he supported the fight with equal fervor. As his attacks against Wodehouse would show, he was never a man to do things by halves, for good or bad.

Wodehouse, like Poe before him, was more cognizant of current events than one would immediately think. Both men responded to the world around them in an indirect fashion, expressing themselves through their art in a way that got their views across while avoiding overt polemics. Both men also liked to respond to antagonists by mocking them. One of Wodehouse’s most memorable characters was the aspiring dictator/designer of ladies’ lingerie Roderick Spode (“It was as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed his mind at the last moment.”) Spode and his bumbling little army of Black Shorts (“by the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left") gave a view of the Fascist movement that was as cutting as it was humorous.

Wodehouse and his wife had the incredible bad luck—or bad judgment—to be in France when the Germans invaded in 1940, and he was sent to an internment camp. A couple of Germans whom he had known years before when he was writing for Hollywood were now Nazi propagandists. Through them, Wodehouse was asked to make radio broadcasts describing his experiences in the camp, and, little knowing what he was getting himself into, he agreed. I will not get into the whole long story of Wodehouse’s notorious broadcasts here. His own account of the uproar can be found here, along with transcripts of his actual radio talks, which are well worth reading, and provide the necessary background for what followed. Suffice to say that in these talks, he basically did to the Nazis what he did to Oswald Mosely’s Brown Shirts—that is, he made comic sport of them. (A British Air Marshal, after reading transcripts of the broadcasts, commented: “Why the Germans let him say all this I cannot think. They have either got more sense of humour than I credited them with or it has just slipped past the censor…Wodehouse has probably been shot by now.”)

It was Wodehouse’s countrymen, not the Nazis, who were calling for his head. Few in Britain had actually heard the broadcasts, which left everyone free to imagine the worst about them. The usual assumption was that he had made traitorous broadcasts aiding the enemy in exchange for favored treatment. Such was hardly the case, but hysteria against the formerly beloved author reached the point where a treason trial was no impossibility.

Forefront in the public attacks on Wodehouse was A. A. Milne. Responding to claims that Wodehouse had been guilty of nothing worse than naïve judgment, Milne wrote in the “Daily Telegraph”: “Irresponsibility in what the papers call ‘a licensed humorist’ can be carried too far; naivete can be carried too far. Wodehouse has been given a good deal of license in the past, but I fancy that now his license will be withdrawn.” Milne twisted Wodehouse's healthy ability to find humor in nearly everything as mere infantilism, sniping that he “has encouraged in himself a natural lack of interest in ‘politics’—‘politics’ being all the things grown-ups talk about at dinner when one is hiding under the table. Things, for instance, like the last war, which found and kept him in America; and postwar taxes, which chased him back and forth across the Atlantic.” In a truly waspish move, this modern Rufus W. Griswold added that Wodehouse had once told him that he would have liked to have had a son, “But he would have to be born at the age of 15, when he was just getting into his House Eleven.” Milne scornfully presented this as proof of Wodehouse’s lack of character. Those words were not uttered by Wodehouse himself, but by one of his fictional characters: It is a line from “Psmith in the City.” A few people have tried to defend Milne by saying it was an honest error in memory, but his act reeks of deliberate, malicious misrepresentation. Like Griswold, Milne had finally found the means of getting revenge against a rival for the crime of being talented.

After the war ended, a British government investigation cleared Wodehouse of wrongdoing, but the stigma has clung to his reputation ever since. And Plum knew where to place a good share of the blame. “Nobody could be more anxious than myself, for instance,” he said later, “that Alan Alexander Milne should trip over a loose bootlace and break his bloody neck.” As Milne was not nearly that considerate, Wodehouse than turned to a more subtle revenge. In “The Mating Season” (1949) Bertie Wooster found himself in the appalling position of having to recite Milne’s poems at a village concert. “A fellow who comes on a platform and starts reciting about Christopher Robin going hoppity-hoppity-hop (or alternatively saying his prayers) does not do so from sheer wantonness but because he is a helpless victim of circumstances beyond his control.” Later, when Wooster complained to a friend about having to recite Christopher Robin poems, the friend replied:
“Pah!” he said. “It might have been Winnie the Pooh.” Well, there was that, of course.
In that same year, Wodehouse wrote a short story, “Rodney Has a Relapse.” Here, a young man who (like Milne) started out as a writer of detective stories began, to everyone’s horror, to instead write nauseatingly sentimental verses about his infant son.
“Do you know where Rodney is at this moment? Up in the nursery, bending over his son Timothy’s cot, gathering material for a poem about the unfortunate little rat when asleep. Some baloney, no doubt, about how he hugs his teddy bear and dreams of angels. Yes, that is what he is doing, writing poetry about Timothy. Horrible whimsical stuff that…Well, when I tell you that he refers to him throughout as ‘Timothy Bobbin,’ you will appreciate what we are up against.” 
I am not a weak man, but I confess I shuddered.
Rodney’s brother-in-law continued:
”What it comes to,” said William, “is that he is wantonly laying up a lifetime of shame and misery for the wretched little moppet. In the years to come, when he is playing in the National Amateur, the papers will print photographs of him with captions underneath explaining that he is the Timothy Bobbin of the well-known poems.”
While on the surface, this story is a light-hearted spoof, for anyone familiar with Milne’s personal life, this would have read as a grim indictment. Like Rodney, Milne saw his son as little more than source material. He took almost no interest in him as a child, gathering from his wife most of the details about Christopher that he used in his stories. And Christopher spent his adulthood convinced this cold-blooded literary exploitation had blighted his life. (He once said of his father, "One day I will write verses about him and see how he likes it.") For all Wodehouse’s mild good-nature, he was no weakling. In his own fashion, he could and did fight back against his enemies. Although his savaging of Milne was not nearly as blatant or infinitely damaging as what his opponent had done to him, Wodehouse had the truth on his side, and nothing is more devastating than that. (Ironically, Milne himself deeply resented that his children’s stories came to far overshadow his “grown-up” works.)

Wodehouse’s fiction managed to get his anger against Milne out of his system. By 1954 he could write, “Poor Milne. I was shocked to hear of his illness. I’m afraid there seems little chance of him getting any better. It is ghastly to think of anyone who wrote such gay stuff ending his life like this. He has always been about my favorite author.” Milne, on the other hand, apparently retained his bitter attitude towards Wodehouse to the end. (If he felt any guilt about how he had wronged his old friend, that undoubtedly added to his feelings of resentment.) The two never spoke or wrote to each other again.

Milne’s last years were deeply unhappy. He and his wife were estranged from their son, and Milne suffered a stroke in 1952, which left him an invalid until his death in 1956. Wodehouse’s life was far longer, and infinitely more fortunate. After the war, he settled permanently and quite happily in America. Although he was pained by the lingering antipathy against him in his homeland, this prejudice lifted to the point that he was given a knighthood in January 1975. (It has been said that this honor was given him in no small part due to the influence of the Queen Mother, who was one of his most devoted fans.) Sir Pelham died as serenely as he had lived six weeks later.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

Strange company, served hot.

By a cat, of course:

How to be a gentleman sailor.  I hope all the men who read this will be taking notes.

"Are you a witch or are you a fairy..."  The 1895 burning of Bridget Clearly.

A photograph of William Howard Taft.  Big deal, you say?  Okay, how about a photograph of William Howard Taft riding a buffalo?

Not to mention Grace Coolidge and her pet raccoon, Rebecca.

Grace and Rebecca at the White House Easter Egg Hunt, 1927

While we're continuing this tribute to the animal kingdom, how about Mae West going batty?  (H/t Bill Crider.)

A Japanese demon cat.  Strange Company has finally found its official mascot.

Gross-out foods through history.

Mary Toft, rabbit-breeder.  Considering just what sort of blog I have here, you might be able to guess that this doesn't mean what you would normally think it means...

Edgar, king of all the ravens at the Tower of London, 1927:

Godly, demon-fighting werewolves in the Baltic.  Yes, my family comes from that area in the world.  Yes, suddenly a lot of things about my heritage make sense now.

George Parrott:  From cattle rustler to fashion accessory.

Stoical time-killers and gentle, gregarious tin-canners:  Florida tourism, 1922 style.  Frankly, it all sounds like much more fun than any tour package you'd see today.

Medieval depilatories.  Hey, who needs things like skin layers?

Last week:  Drunken Pilgrims.  This week:  Drunken Georgians.  This blog is getting more disreputable by the day.

The Order of the Good Death:  How They Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Grave.

Memo to Victorian-era photographers:  You could shoot portraits of high-society Boston belles or you could create faux-Classical nudie shots.  It just didn't pay to combine the two.

Have a good weekend, gang.  The demon cats and I will see you on Monday.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Here we have a very strange death from 1909.  Mrs. Jessie Culbertson of Vincennes, Indiana, had been a bride for only three months when she was found in the woodshed of her home.  She had been absent from sight no longer than about ten minutes.  She was bruised and unconscious, with burns around her face and throat.  A cloth was tied around her head, closing her jaws shut.  (Some reports state her hands and feet were also tied.)  Before she died, the stricken woman regained her senses long enough to say that a man and a woman had dragged her out to the woodshed, bound her and forced poison down her throat.  Several letters were found in her home, allegedly from an old girlfriend of her new husband Russell, warning her to give him up or suffer the consequences.

These circumstances initially clearly pointed to murder, but that was soon disputed.  It was revealed that Jessie Culbertson had tried to kill herself a year before, and investigators believed the threatening letters resembled her handwriting.  The stationary used for the letters was similar to paper Mrs. Culbertson had used before. The theory was that she staged her death to look like a murder that would implicate a woman she saw as a rival.

Despite the ambiguous nature of the case--her bruises were never explained, and it's questionable that she could have tied herself up in any way after having taken a poison that would have been immediately debilitating--this soon became the official verdict of her death, and the “other woman” was cleared of suspicion.  Jessie Culbertson, the authorities ruled, was not a tragic victim, but a suicide who was also one of the most diabolical of attempted murderers.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Maidservant Vs. the Patriarch: Which One Was the Murderer?

The slaying of a maidservant named Jessie McPherson, which took place in Glasgow, Scotland in the summer of 1862, still manages to stand out in the strange world of criminal jurisprudence. As crime historian William Roughead noted, it is not every day that one encounters a murder trial where the chief witness for the prosecution was the actual killer. 

This sordid and gruesome crime took place—as so many of them do—against a backdrop of quiet respectability. Miss McPherson worked for the family of a well-to-do and socially prominent accountant, John Fleming. Prior to the murder, the only known flaw in the Fleming history was John’s father James, who was most commonly—and probably most politely—known as “Old Fleming.”

Old Fleming, a man of (according to him) eighty-seven or (according to the lawyers) seventy-eight years, was the sort who makes a colorful and entertaining figure when seen in literature, but who is inevitably a living hell to deal with in real life. While his son proudly rose to the level of comfortable bourgeois, he himself remained stubbornly and embarrassingly crude in manners, habits, and speech. Indeed, he was scarcely a member of the family circle at all, preferring to spend his time “downstairs” with the servants. He preferred the company of the female staff, a predilection that sometimes presented delicate difficulties, especially when—as often happened—he had too much to drink. Ten years before our story opened, Old Fleming had even suffered a public rebuke from the local Kirk for having impregnated a domestic servant named Janet Dunsmore. Considering the results of his involvement with Miss McPherson, Miss Dunsmore was relatively fortunate.

Every summer, the Fleming household retired to their country house in Dunoon, leaving McPherson to tend to the family home—and Old Fleming, who was always left behind to holiday in his own fashion. John Fleming, along with his son John Jr., stayed in town during the week to attend to business, leaving every Friday afternoon to spend the weekends at Dunoon. On the morning of Monday, July 7, 1862, John Fleming and his son returned to Glasgow, going straight to the office, as was their habit. Around four-thirty in the afternoon, John Jr. went home. He was greeted by his grandfather, which was extremely unusual, as McPherson was invariably the one to answer the door. When young John asked what had become of Jessie, Old Fleming simply said, “She’s away, she’s cut.” He added that he had not seen her since Friday, and her bedroom door was locked.

John Fleming arrived at this time, and when he was told of the missing maidservant, he immediately led them to her basement room to investigate. The key to her locked door was missing, but John Sr. was able to get inside using the key to the adjoining pantry. They found the room covered in blood, with the body of Jessie McPherson lying nearly naked, with a piece of carpet covering her head. “She’s been lying there all this time,” Old Fleming exclaimed accurately, if unnecessarily. “And me in the house!”

A police surgeon was soon on the scene. When the house was examined, blood was found on the sink and door of the nearby kitchen. The doormat was so soaked with blood, it was sticking to the threshold. A trail of blood could be seen in the hallway leading from kitchen to the maid’s bedroom. Most notable, however, was the discovery that the kitchen floor, the hallway, and the upper part of the dead woman’s body had obviously all been washed. The hallway was still visibly damp, indicating that this crude clean-up operation had happened fairly recently. Investigators also discovered blood in Old Fleming’s dressing-room, and in the kitchen was a cleaver, which had been cleaned, but that still bore traces of blood. Several imprints of a bloody foot were found in the maid’s room. There was also blood-stained water in her wash basin, and her “servant’s box” containing her personal belongings had obviously been rifled. It was also discovered that several of the dead woman’s garments were missing, as well as some pieces of silver from the dining room.

Advertisements were placed in the local papers about the burgled items, in the hope that it would lead them to the thief, who was also presumed to be the murderer. The autopsy revealed that the unfortunate maid’s head and been badly mangled by repeated blows from a hatchet or cleaver. Defensive wounds were also found on her hands and arms. It was believed that she was attacked from above, as she lay on the ground, and then her body was dragged by the feet from the kitchen to her room.

Unfortunately, we do not have a record of what precisely Old Fleming told investigators when he was asked to give his account of that fatal weekend. It would be good to know his original explanation for his nonchalance about his missing maidservant. Or his failure to notice that he was spending three days alone in a blood-stained house. Or his obliviousness to these recently-washed floors. All we know is that his responses were so evasive and suspicious that he quickly found himself under arrest.

Just when things were looking black for the Fleming patriarch, salvation came in the form of a local pawnbroker, who announced that some of the missing silver had been placed in his shop by a woman who gave a phony name and address. Soon after that, the police—who were evidently guided in this direction by Old Fleming himself—arrested another young maidservant named Jessie McLachlan. She had been the dead woman’s best friend.

When interrogated, Mrs. McLachlan, most unfortunately for herself, lost her head and told her questioners what soon proved to be a tissue of frantic lies. She denied having been at the Fleming home the night of the murder. She stated Old Fleming had given her the silver to pawn for him, as he needed the money. When confronted with the fact that the deceased’s missing clothes were found in her home, she said that McPherson had given her the garments to be altered. Tests established that it was her foot that left the bloody print found in the Fleming house. All of this, while undoubtedly incriminating to Mrs. McLachlan, did nothing to mitigate the equally suspicious behavior of Old Fleming. However, from this time on, the authorities suddenly displayed a new-found trust and respect for that gentleman. Whether or not the fact that the Procurator-Fiscal (the Scottish equivalent of public prosecutor) was a close personal friend of the Fleming family had anything to do with this shift in attitude can only be left to speculation.  “The old innocent,” as he was dubbed by his sympathizers in the local press, was not only set free, but he became the star witness when McLachlan stood trial for murder on September 17-20 1862.

The highlight of “the old innocent's” testimony undoubtedly came when he was asked about his remarkable lack of curiosity about his missing servant, particularly when she failed to answer the door to visitors, as was her invariable duty.

“Jessie was deid!” Fleming answered matter-of-factly in his broad Scots accent. “She couldna open the door when she was deid!”

In those days, McLachlan was forbidden by law to take the stand, so her defense relied on a handful of witnesses. They testified to the warm friendship that had existed between the two women, and the victim's loathing of Old Fleming, whom she described as “an old wretch and an old devil.” A friend of the deceased who saw her shortly before her murder asserted that McPherson confided that she had a secret she wished to tell her when they were alone—a secret that was obviously of a very intimate nature, and one that related to her difficult relations with her employer's eccentric and intrusive father. She died before she could relate the nature of this secret, but the judge, Lord Deas, who was as suspiciously partial to the Flemings as the investigators, urged the jury to ignore the issue. He was certain that the deceased only wished to say that she was thinking of emigrating to America!

It was in his summing-up to the jury, however, that Deas truly distinguished himself. As a contemporary law journal put it, he “put his foot fiercely into one scale [of justice] and kicked at the other.” Anything that told against the accused was emphasized with loving fervor; whatever reflected badly on “the old innocent” was either excused or simply ignored. In a speech lasting four hours, he failed to say one word even remotely in favor of the defendant.

The jury could take a hint. After deliberating for a grand total of fifteen minutes, they obligingly came back with a verdict of “Guilty.” Upon hearing this dreaded word, McLachlan—who appears to have been the only one in the courtroom surprised by this decision—told her counsel that she wished him to read a statement on her behalf. It was an account she had related to her lawyers back in August, after she learned that Old Fleming had been cleared of suspicion. When permission was given, he gave, for the first time in public, McLachlan’s version of the night Jessie McPherson died. It was a tale that could give Lovecraft or Poe the vapors.

In brief, she claimed that on the night in question, she was visiting her friend in the Fleming kitchen, with Old Fleming, as usual, lending his highly unwelcome presence. After the trio made generous inroads in the family whisky, he gave McLachlan money to have their bottle refilled. Upon finding that the local public house was closed, she returned to find her friend lying semiconscious on the floor of her bedroom, with large gashes over her face. When the horrified woman asked Fleming what had happened, he said there had been “an accident.” He refused to send for a doctor.

After McPherson had somewhat recovered her senses, she told McLachlan that some days previously, Old Fleming, during one of his habitual fits of intoxication, tried to force himself on her. She had fought him off, but there had been “words” between them ever since, and he was terrified she would tattle about his behavior. After McLachlan had left to buy the whisky, there had been an argument, which ended with him striking her in the face with “something.”

McLachlan nursed her friend as best she could, but as dawn approached the victim suddenly grew much worse, and she became desperate to fetch a doctor. However, she found that Old Fleming had locked her inside the house. She returned to find the old man again attacking McPherson with a meat chopper. Hysterical with fright, unable to stop him or flee this house of horrors, she ran upstairs, screaming for help. 

Fleming followed her. He said that McPherson had to die, as otherwise she would have “told” on him. He assured her that as long as she kept silent about what had happened, she had nothing to fear, but if she did not, he would accuse her of the murder. He said calmly that he would leave some windows open and say that burglars had been responsible for the crime. To add verisimilitude to his story (and, of course, to implicate McLachlan, although her wits were not about her enough to realize this,) he gave her some of the dead woman's clothes, as well as some items of silver to pawn. He also gave her a small sum of money, promising more if she held her tongue.

McLachlan's mind was still frozen with fear for her own life and uncertainty about what she, a mere servant, could do against the patriarch of a wealthy and powerful family—uncertainties that were certainly to prove justified. She did as she was told.

In response to this statement, Lord Deas immediately and contemptuously dismissed it as “wicked falsehoods.” Without hesitation, he donned the Black Cap and sentenced the prisoner to be hanged. 

Fortunately for McLachlan, others found her story considerably more convincing. There was such a public outcry against executing her before further investigation could be done that the Crown was compelled to appoint a “Secret Inquiry” into the matter. The Commissioner could not subpoena witnesses or force anyone who appeared to testify under oath, and one of the heads of this “Inquiry” was the same Procurator-Fiscal who had pressed the original charges against the accused. However unsatisfactory these private proceedings may have been, those involved obviously realized they were in a bad position, and, as so often happens when those in authority are forced to pass judgment on their own mistakes, they attempted a compromise. On November 6, 1862, McLachlan's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

As is usual with compromises, no one was happy. If the accused was guilty, she hardly deserved mercy, and if innocent, a life sentence was pure outrage. The whole issue wound up as the subject of two lengthy debates in the House of Commons. They established that so far as the defendant's statement could be checked, it fit the known facts perfectly, and included details which were unknown at the time, but were later found to be accurate. A number of witnesses were called, including some who had not appeared at the trial, all of them giving evidence favorable to McLachlan's story. In Roughead’s words, if her statement was false, “we have lost a fictionist more marvellous than Defoe; one so adroit as to foresee and account for facts and circumstances which it is humanely impossible she could have known she would be called upon to meet.”

Her belated efforts to clear her name proved largely for naught, however. Jessie McLachlan had saved her life, but lost virtually everything else. She spent fifteen years in prison, and was quietly released on October 5, 1877, when she was forty-four. After her trial, her husband and infant son moved to America, and upon finding that she was still a notorious figure in her native land, she soon followed them there. All we know about her subsequent history is that she died in Port Huron, Michigan on January 1, 1899. We are equally ignorant about the last years of her Nemesis, Old Fleming. This is probably just as well, unless his relatives found a way to keep him well clear of the whisky and the maids.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Erin Go Bragh!

My favorite Irish poem, courtesy of W. B. Yeats:

St. Patrick's Day parade, 1874, via Library of Congress

Friday, March 15, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

This week in strange company.

Plus, of course, cats.

Meet Fanny and Stella, everyone's favorite cross-dressing Victorians.

"Della is not well":  A genealogist unearths a long-forgotten tragedy.

Because, hey, there just aren't enough ludicrous Edgar Allan Poe myths out there, right?

The sad case of Julia Pastrana, "The Bearded Lady."

Medieval zombies!

The kind of things that could land you in the madhouse during the early 19th century.  As I mentioned on Twitter, I find it a bit disturbing to see that it reads like my weekly "to-do" list.

That's one of the nice things about writing a blog no one reads.  You get to recycle your own stupid one-liners with impunity.

The 1931 car accident that very nearly changed world history.

A little-known survivor of the "Titanic"--this violin.

When the President met the Pirate.

Most unholy:  A look back at the only American priest to be executed for murder.

The lost pets of 18th century London.

In which we learn that the Pilgrims could drink a battalion of Marines under the table, and back again.

A biography of Twitter's Saddest Cat, The Bear.

See you Monday, gang.  Unless, of course, I go Full Pilgrim on that British gin and the insane asylum beckons.  I suppose with me, that's always a distinct possibility.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

In 1890, a shameless ripoff homage to Poe's "The Bells" was used to scare people into buying fire insurance.  No, I don't get it either.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Lord and Lady Grange; Or, Why It Is a Great Pity the 18th Century Never Got Around to Inventing Reality TV

Lord Grange, via Wikipedia
Anyone who assumes the sort of guests found on “Dr. Phil” or “The Jerry Springer Show” are a modern aberration has yet to meet Lord and Lady Grange, the pride of 18th century Scotland. The Mrs. was the daughter of an executed murderer and liked to think of herself as a chip off the old block. Her spouse was a Lord Justice-Clerk of Scotland, a leading Hanoverian, a prominent light of the Presbyterian church, and a husband who solved his matrimonial unhappiness by imprisoning his wife on a remote island for the last thirteen years of her life.

Lady Grange, via Wikipedia
The marriage of James Erskine, Lord Grange and Rachel Chiesly was of the shotgun variety. And with these two, it should come as no surprise that this was quite literally the case. When Grange, who prided himself on his womanizing ways, met the beautiful and fiery Miss Chiesly, he was quite happy to sleep with her. When she became pregnant, he was equally eager to abandon her. This proved to be a grave error. Legend has it that one morning she stalked into his home holding a marriage bond in one hand and a pistol in another. After dropping a few significant reminders about her paternal heritage, Miss Chiesly announced she would be an honest woman or Grange would be a dead man. His choice. Erskine picked the former, although they would both quickly regret his decision.

The marriage, (which took place around 1707,) and nine children failed to have a good influence on Lord Grange—at one point he was described as “engaged in a course of debauchery at Edinburgh” that “interrupted his religious exercises”—and his Lady was not the woman to take an unsatisfactory spouse calmly. She was, in the words of an acquaintance, “unquiet.” Her habitual fits of rage—against her husband, against her children, against stray passerby, against the world--were terrifying. She drank even more than the prodigious quantities consumed by her husband (and was an even meaner drunk.) Connubial bliss reached the point where she became fond of sleeping with loaded guns and razors under her pillow. It is almost too appropriate that when not engaged in his busy legal career and earnest religious studies, Lord Grange, who was a great bibliophile, developed a deep interest in demonology and witchcraft. (In 1718, Grange complacently recorded in his diary that “I drank and whor’d and followed sensual pleasures, but I never gave over reading, tho’ my lewdness hinder’d exceedingly my profiting at any study.”)

By the 1720s, Grange’s life showed danger of turning from the merely hellish to something far more dangerous. He had enemies in the Kirk—in 1726 he complained that he was being “represented as a hypocrite and pretender to religion”--and he was increasingly suspected of Jacobite tendencies. Worse still, “That plague of my life,” as Grange called his helpmeet, was exploiting these rumors, loudly accusing him and his friends of treason. Finally, in 1730, Lady Grange was induced to agree to a formal separation. In exchange for a hundred pounds a year, she was to depart her husband’s house for good.

She did not take her dismissal well. She developed a habit of making a raucous spectacle of herself in front of his estate—always when there were visitors. “She cried and raged,” he wrote, “against me and mine, watched for me in the streets, chased me from place to place in the most indecent and shameless manner, and threatened to attack me on the Bench.” After Lady Grange broke into his house, stole the household accounts, and “committed outrages,” Grange was forced to have his house protected round-the-clock by the Town Guard. She intercepted his letters, in the hope of finding proof of her treason accusations, and, every now and then, tried to kill him.

Most would think this delightful pair richly deserved each other, but Grange felt otherwise. After conferring with certain of his friends, an elaborate trap was laid for his wife. It is often stated as fact that Lady Grange had finally acquired evidence that would establish her husband’s treasonous support for the Stuarts, thus forcing Grange to take extreme measures, but other historians question this. It seems equally likely that Grange simply wanted to be rid of his pesky spouse for good, but convinced his accomplices that she was politically dangerous to them all, in order to secure their cooperation.

On the night of January 22, 1732, as Lady Grange was preparing for bed, a group of men broke into her bedroom, and, after a violent fight, she was gagged, bound, carried off in a waiting coach, and eventually imprisoned on various locations in the Outer Hebrides—an area which, in those days, was nearly as remote as the moon. She wound up on what she later described as “the vile, nasty, stinking, poor isle of St. Kilda”—and this description was not hyperbole.

Lady Grange’s disappearance aroused amazingly little interest. Even her children, (whom she had all disinherited many years before,) viewed her sudden absence as an unexpected blessing rather than an alarming mystery. After a short time, her husband announced that she had died--he even held a funeral service--and most were content to leave it at that.

However, after eight years, she was able to smuggle to her business agent in Edinburgh, a Mr. Hope, two letters announcing her plight. The news produced much publicity, but no practical results. Hope made some efforts to have her either released or rescued, but no one in authority seemed to take the Grange abduction as anything more than a private domestic matter with a happy enough ending. In the meantime, Lady Grange’s captors, in an effort to forestall any rescue attempts, kept her on the move, until she died on the island of Skye on May 12, 1745. Soon after she was buried in the local churchyard, a second, “mock” funeral, featuring a coffin filled with stones, was held. It is unknown why this was done. Perhaps, knowing Lady Grange’s indomitable nature, they wanted to make sure the burial “took.”

It is pleasant to note that Grange gained little from the removal of his wife. He dabbled in politics, with disastrous results. He gained a seat in the House of Commons, but his maiden speech—which dealt with his pet topic of witchcraft—was said to have “set the House in a titter of laughter.” (A contemporary described Grange as having “neither learning nor ability. He was no lawyer, and he was a bad speaker.”) His latter years were also plagued with financial problems. After the death of Lady Grange, he married his chief mistress, a coffee-house keeper named Fanny Lindsay. Although the new Lady had dreams of social conquest, she and her husband were seen by the local gentry as disgraceful outcasts, forcing them to depart for the less judgmental atmosphere of London. Lord Grange died obscurely in that city on January 20, 1754.

Lady Grange’s melancholy fate has, over the centuries, been immortalized in poems, plays, and novels, all depicting her as a martyred heroine. Her spirit may be taking some consolation from the fact that in a sense, she has had the last laugh on her despised spouse.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Weekend Link Dump

A roundup of some of this week's odd history stories from across the internet.

Plus cats.  Because what better strange company do we have than cats?

The real-life horror at sea that inspired a classic novel.

Edgar Allan Snowman!

Spending a day with the Tower of London’s mystical, majestic ravens. 

Eleanor of Aquitaine Did Not Eat Rotten Meat; Or, One More Reason Why Alison Weir’s Books Are Best Used As Doorstops, Paperweights, Or Bug-Squashers.

Kathryn Warner tears down more than a few myths about King Edward II and his queen, Isabella.

I Visited the Roman Empire and All I Got Was This Lousy Trinket.

An utterly charming, albeit utterly unbelievable, story of how Beethoven came to write the Moonlight Sonata. 

Yet another intersection of academia and psychobabble: Richard III, control freak? 

Better late than never, I suppose: We now think we know why the Hindenburg crashed.

“…but if he had fought like a Man, he need not have been hang'd like a Dog.” Daniel Defoe pays tribute to lady pirate Anne Bonny.

OKCupid, Victorian Style.

From 1913: The Boy Scouts and the Suffragettes. 

For all of you with a taste for Morbid Medicine and a few dollars to spare, Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris (aka the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice) is crowd-funding a documentary, "Medicine's Dark Secrets."

Cat armor. Need I say more?

No.  No.  NO!!!!

Oh, and to briefly return to the modern world, the UN is saying to its diplomats, "Hey, guys, when you gather to put budgets together, could you try doing it sober for once?"

Happy weekend, gang. See you Monday, assuming I'm not hit by a meteorite.  An event that, to be honest, would come as no surprise to anyone.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

From 1922:  I yearn for the good old days, when men were men, and it was considered morally acceptable to have brownies for breakfast.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Mystery Man of Nova Scotia

On September 8, 1863, an eight-year-old boy named George Colin Albright discovered a shocking sight on the beach near his home in Digby Neck, Nova Scotia: A semi-conscious man, probably in his late teens or early twenties, with no legs. When adult townsmen arrived, the man appeared terrified of them, desperately crawling back to the sea in an effort to escape. Despite his infirmity, he put up a frantic fight before he was finally brought to the Albright home. He was soaking wet from the rain that had fallen the night before, had a terrible cough, and appeared to be in a state of shock.

As the man slowly recuperated, he resisted all attempts to discover his identity. He was obviously hostile and sullen, and only muttered occasional unintelligible words. At some point, when asked his name, he said something observers believed sounded like “Jerome.” It is not at all clear this is what he actually said, but for the rest of his long life, “Jerome” became the name by which he was known. His legs had been expertly amputated above the knee. The wounds were completely healed, indicating the operation had taken place some time past. There was nothing on him to indicate who he was, or how he had appeared on the beach, although it was noted that his hands were unusually soft, suggesting he was of a status high enough to be unused to manual labor.

As time went on and the news of the mysterious young man spread, speculation about his identity became a worldwide guessing game. Was he a sailor? A soldier? A pirate? A member of the Foreign Legion? A spy? A prisoner of noble, or even royal status, a la Dumas’ conception of the Man in the Iron Mask? Did he have some connection with another famous Nova Scotia mystery, Oak Island?

Jerome never said. He lived with various households in the region, his upkeep paid by a modest stipend from the provincial government. He was a difficult houseguest. Jerome was generally surly, deeply depressed, and at times physically violent. He loathed most people, and obviously detested the attention he received as the local tourist attraction. He spoke occasional words or phrases, but never anything enough to provide solid clues to his identity. The mute hermit was fond of children—perhaps because he knew they could not hurt him the way their elders had—and when he believed himself alone with them, would become more communicative. However, one of his young friends recalled years later that when he thought adults had overheard him, “he showed great fear and would not speak anymore for a long time.” 

At some time in the 1880s, a strange incident took place that has an air of apocrypha, but is widely retold as authentic history in the area. One day, two unnamed women came to the house where he was residing and asked to speak to Jerome in private. The three went off into another room, where they could be heard in earnest conversation, although it was impossible to make out what was said. As the women were leaving, one was heard to quietly say to the other, “He is well here. Let us leave him be.”

Jerome died of bronchitis on April 15, 1912. For someone who so hated the spotlight, he would have been pleased that his death was overshadowed in the press by the sinking of the “Titanic,” which took place the same day. He lies in the church cemetery of the Acadian village of Meteghan.

Strangely, it was overlooked that the solution to at least part of the “mystery of Jerome” was available all along—and the truth proved to be both more prosaic and more tragic than any of the speculations. What is known of Jerome’s story began in Chipman, New Brunswick, in 1859, when during a particularly harsh winter night, a young stranger was found in the backwoods, half-dead from cold. He had fallen into a river, but somehow managed to pull himself back up on the bank. However, his soaked legs were badly frostbitten, and soon began to gangrene. A local surgeon had no choice but to amputate them. No one could learn who he was or what he was doing in the community, although his speech and appearance led to the theory that he was Italian. When addressed, he muttered something that sounded like “Gamby,” so “Gamby” he was called in New Brunswick. (It was later suggested that the man was really saying “gambia”—Italian for “leg.”)

Gamby quickly became an unpopular burden on the community. He had a violent, morose personality, he could not or would not reveal his identity, and the Chipman Overseers of the Poor became increasingly resentful that their time and taxpayer money had to be devoted to his care.

In 1863, some of the Chipman authorities took heartlessly brutal steps to relieve them of this unpleasant and unwanted guest. They arranged for a local man of notoriously shifty character to put him on a ship bound for Liverpool, where he could then contact the embassy for his native land for transportation to wherever his home might be. It is highly unlikely that the Overseers truly imagined this legless, uncommunicative, penniless man would be capable of doing all this, but this was their cover story, and they stuck to it. What actually happened was that “Gamby” was simply shipped to Nova Scotia—presumably far enough away for New Brunswick to disclaim any knowledge of him—and dumped at Digby Neck.

Soon after “Jerome” was discovered, rumors spread that he was Chipman’s strange visitor. In fact, a little over a week after Jerome was discovered in Digby Neck, the “Saint John Freeman” carried a story condemming the “savage barbarity” of those responsible for dumping this “poor miserable helpless creature” in Nova Scotia. If he had died before being discovered, the paper declared, the Chipman authorities would have faced murder charges. The whole affair created a great deal of angry comment in the New Brunswick press. In October of 1863, a Nova Scotia newspaper, the “Christian Messenger,” commented: “We remember seeing, in a New Brunswick paper, a week or two since, an account of the removal of a person exactly similar to the unfortunate stranger [Jerome]…from some part of their province. The person who took him in charge was paid, as we understood, to take him to New York or Boston, that he might be sent thence to his own country.” In 1905, when the “Gamby” story was revived, Senator George Gerald King, who was the leading citizen of the Chipman area, matter-of-factly confirmed that “Jerome” and “Gamby” were one and the same. While acknowledging that the legless man had been “inhumanely abandoned,” he sought to defend his hometown by suggesting that it had been done at the behest of the St. John authorities, rather than the residents of Chipman.

So, with all this, how did Jerome’s true history remain ignored, even by many to this day? The poor communications between local communities that existed during his time offers only a partial explanation. It is understandable that the New Brunswick authorities would want their despicable actions overlooked, but how did everyone else manage to ignore a solution so clearly hiding in plain sight? It can only be seen as a tribute to humanity’s love of a good mystery. The silent amputee was a worldwide sensation and valuable tourist attraction when he was a complete puzzle. As merely the victim of a devastating, but all-too-common, accident in the woods, he immediately became far less fascinating—and valuable. Human nature always prefers glamorous enigmas to depressing answers.

Even with this additional knowledge, Jerome still manages to baffle. No one knows who he really was, where he came from, or why he was in New Brunswick on that fatal night in 1859. His strange silence ensured that he remains a classic question mark. That leads to the most peculiar thing about him—why did he keep these personal details to himself? The general assumption has been that he had some guilty secret to protect, or was simply exercising a perverse stubbornness. However, Fraser Mooney Jr., author of “Jerome,” which will likely remain the definitive book on the subject, offered a highly convincing theory of the man’s silence that is, like the facts surrounding his amputation and abandonment, horrifyingly simple. This researcher proposed that Jerome never articulated his story because he was unable to do so. Mooney believed that Jerome’s hypothermia, coupled with the physical and mental shock of major surgery in what must have been primitive conditions, caused him to suffer a stroke (or a series of small strokes) that left him aphasic. To put it simply, Jerome suffered injury to his brain that severely damaged his ability to articulate speech and comprehend spoken or written words. Much of his rage and fear likely stemmed from a highly understandable frustration from being unable to clearly express himself, along with an impaired ability to understand everything that had befallen him.

If Mooney’s diagnosis is correct, poor Jerome personified Harlan Ellison’s dark fantasy: “I have no mouth. And I must scream.”

In Which I Try To Make Excuses For Why the Internet Is Getting Yet Another Lousy Blog

"...will not my husband fear and forsake me, if he sees me associate with such strange company and kindred?"
-From "Undine," by Friedrich de La Motte Fouqué

Welcome. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for history’s more peculiar corners. I collect stories about unusual people and events the way normal people collect family photos. Ever since I started the World of Edgar Allan Poe blog, I’ve been considering starting a second site where I could look back on some of those stories, and I finally decided to go ahead and take the plunge.

I’m not sure how long I’ll keep up this site—it may be that I’ll just tell a few of my favorite tales, and then bow out. Of course, I thought that about World of Poe, and over three years later I found myself somehow still driveling on. I suppose I should never underestimate my aptitude for windbaggery. On this blog, I plan to write a little about true crime, a little about lesser-known historical episodes, a little about the paranormal, a little about whatever damn fool thing happens to cross my mind at any given moment. We’ll see. To be frank, I don’t know where I’m going with this, but in my usual what-the-hell fashion, I said, “What the hell?” and plunged on regardless.

However bumpy the road may get here, I hope you find something to like in the ride.