"...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, June 30, 2014

Joseph Cosey, Confounding Copycat

[Note:  I originally published this post over at The World of Edgar Allan Poe in 2010. I have a soft spot for old Joe, and he seemed to fit this blog nicely, so I’m repeating it here. Hope you don’t mind reruns.]

The period of the 1920s-1950s was a Golden Age for Edgar Allan Poe-related "discoveries." During these years, many previously unknown letters and documents of the legendary poet surfaced for the first time. Unfortunately, a great deal of credit for these additions to Poe lore can be given to an astoundingly imaginative, talented, and energetic forger named Martin Coneely.

Coneely, who was born in 1887, is best known by his favorite alias of "Joseph Cosey." Little is known of his early life. He ran away from home at an early age, and henceforth led a solitary, nomadic life, supporting himself through a series of petty crimes. He apparently had no friends or family ties. Despite his shady and hardscrabble background, he was a highly intelligent man with an instinctive love for books and history--19th century Americana in particular. In other circumstances, he would have become a genuine scholar, but as it happened, his fate was instead not to merely study history, but to make it. Literally.

In the 1920s, he paid what proved to be a life-changing visit to the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. His motives in requesting to see signatures and documents belonging to such greats as Jefferson and Washington were entirely innocent--he merely wished to gratify his passion for Americana. However, once he was able to actually see and touch these priceless relics of the past, he felt he could not let them all go. Settling his desire upon a pay warrant signed by Benjamin Franklin in 1786, he slipped the paper into his pocket, and, in those more trusting times, left the library unnoticed.

A year or so later, he was living in a tenement in New York City, drunk, alone, and flat broke. Desperate for money, he steeled himself to sell his one prized possession--his stolen Franklin document. Upon taking it to a book dealer, however, he was stunned and indignant when the man scornfully rejected it as a forgery. In his disgust, Cosey resolved to teach this impertinent fool a lesson. He, himself, would create a real forgery and sell it to him! He haunted the local public libraries, studying facsimiles of the handwriting of historical figures. He found that Abraham Lincoln's signature came easiest to him, and after some months of practice, whipped out a handsome "Yrs. Truly, A. Lincoln" on a scrap of paper. The same dealer who dismissed his authentic Franklin bought the bogus Cosey for ten dollars.

It was an epiphany. Cosey, after a lifetime of aimless and unproductive wanderings, felt he had finally found his mission in life. He threw all his previously dissipated energies into his new calling, and he exceeded beyond all expectations. He became to manuscript forging what Tiffany's is to diamonds. G. William Bergquest, an expert on literary hoaxes, called him "the greatest forger of his kind in this century." The renowned book and autograph dealer Charles Hamilton went even further, describing Cosey as "the most skilled and versatile forger of all time." During his long and prolific career, he forged many items of Americana, particularly ones imitating the handwriting of Lincoln and George Washington.

Alas for Poe scholarship, Cosey also had a personal devotion to the author of "The Raven," which he expressed in his own singular manner. He also, for whatever reason, had a predilection for Poe's literary contemporary Nathaniel Parker Willis. He is known to have created more than one letter from Poe to Willis, and enjoyed adding forged notations by Willis to his "Poe manuscripts." Physically, they were impeccable pieces of work, but Cosey occasionally made several factual errors in the text. The errors were relatively minor--I've seen far worse in many Poe biographies--but they were enough to discredit the documents. Otherwise, the letters may well have been permanently accepted as genuine. In fact, Hamilton stated that all of the extant Poe/Willis correspondence has to at least be suspected as being Cosey's handiwork. (All this makes me very curious about a manuscript copy of Poe's poem "For Annie" which sold at auction not long ago for a cool $830,000, even though very limited information was given about the document's provenance. Among the distinguishing features of this artifact were notations added by none other than N.P. Willis.)

Cosey was considerably more ambitious than the typical forger. Not content merely with reproducing signatures or brief snippets of already-published texts, he did serious preliminary research on his subjects, enabling him to convincingly channel the literary style of Poe and his other favorite targets, churning out with unnerving speed and agility interesting letters, artifacts such as account books and legal papers, and long samples of documents (including manuscripts of "The Poetic Principle," "The Raven," and "The Fall of the House of Usher.") His instinctive skill for replicating handwritings was coupled with the savvy to use genuinely antiquated paper and writing implements, including a distinctive brown ink specific to the 18th and early 19th centuries. He even became adept at forging letters of verification to accompany his creations. All this combined to make him a formidable menace to the world of manuscript collecting.

Cosey was also clever enough to take advantage of an odd quirk in the penal codes of New York (and a number of other states.) According to the law, merely forging any "archaeological object" was not in itself illegal. The crime occurred only when the owner of the "object" deliberately presented it for sale it as a genuine artifact. Cosey would merely diffidently present his documents to dealers or private collectors as objects of unknown value that he had "inherited," or "been given," or simply "found," and left it up to the prospective buyer to decide whether it was of any worth. Ironically, his seeming casualness about the documents served to enhance their plausibility. And if the forgery was detected, all he had to do was innocently state that he had never claimed the manuscripts were anything other than old pieces of paper.

Another thing that made Cosey notable was that, like many other great figures of his unusual profession, he saw himself as no mere criminal, but as an artist, a craftsman. He took great pride in his output, which he invested with a care that arose not merely from a desire to avoid exposure, but from a love of the work itself. He was, in the words of one of his parole officers, "a likable, ingratiating fraud." To paraphrase one of his favorite subjects, for him forgery was not a purpose, but a passion.

What is more, he convinced himself that he was actually doing a public service. After all, relatively few of even the most ardent Poe devotees have the money or opportunity to possess a letter or other document in his writing. Thanks to Joseph Cosey, many more of them would get that chance! He once told a story about going to a bookstore with a "Poe letter" he had created. "The owner was out," he said, "but his secretary told me she was a student of Poe and would be thrilled to see something in his handwriting. I finally sold it to her for three dollars, but only because I was broke. Well my conscience bothered me about it for weeks, and the first time I had three dollars I went back to the shop to tell her it was a counterfeit, and buy it back from her. But when I heard her talk about how much pleasure that letter had given her, I didn't have the heart to disillusion her. So I walked out and let her keep it and believe in it."

I'd like to know where that letter is now. And how often it has been quoted as source material in Poe biographies.

For all his natural gift for chicanery, Cosey did sometimes turn out product sufficiently flawed to be exposed by the experts. He often ignored the fact that a person's handwriting inevitably changes with age. A Cosey "Benjamin Franklin," for example, would have the same signature in old age that he had in his prime. He would occasionally cut corners by chemically treating modern paper to give it the appearance of age. Such mistakes led to his arrest in 1937, after he sold an "Abraham Lincoln" letter. It was dated "December 2, 1846." but, with uncharacteristic sloppiness Cosey wrote it on paper bearing a discernible 1860 watermark. (By this time, Cosey was not only an alcoholic, but a heroin addict, which undoubtedly affected his talents.) His victim was content to chalk it up to the hazards of the business, but after he heard Cosey was attempting to sell a similar letter to another dealer, the police were summoned. The detectives who brought him in for questioning immediately saw from the marks on his arms that he was a drug user, and evidently promised him a much-needed "fix" if he confessed. He did, and was convicted of petty larceny. He was paroled after less than a year, and he inevitably immediately went back to his life's work. He is believed to have kept up his cheerfully felonious ways right until his death, which is generally thought to have taken place around 1950, when he simply dropped out of sight. Some sources, however, believe he was still producing "artifacts" for some years afterwards. His end, appropriately enough for a Poe impersonator, is a mystery.

Thankfully, many documents have been exposed as his handiwork. (A fine example can be seen here.)  Such is his reputation, that many of them have fetched high prices at auction as "Genuine Cosey Forgeries." A side industry even emerged of--seriously--forged "Cosey forgeries." The New York Public Library did him the dubious, if unmistakable, honor of setting up a permanent collection of his "Greatest Hits." (One of the founding items in this file was an assortment of notes Poe supposedly wrote in relation to the printing of "Tamerlane.") However, it is acknowledged that there are many, many more "Coseys" in circulation that have gone undetected. Early on in this blog, I posted a quote from Charles Hamilton (who made a particular study of Cosey's career.) "Long ago," he wrote, "I concluded that there must be far more forgeries of Poe by Cosey than there are original Poe letters."

Considering how many leading items of Poeana--items which largely have a sketchy or nonexistent history--first appeared during Cosey's prolific heyday, Hamilton's words should be memorized by any student of Poe's life. And it must be remembered that Joseph Cosey was hardly the first Poe forger, nor the last. Caveat emptor. And then some.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

It's our first Link Dump of the summer!

And the cats can't wait to get to the seaside.

Behold our latest crop of links:

What the hell happened to this Persian army in 524 B.C.?  Now we know!

What the hell happened to the Pope's Stone?  Well, we sort of know...maybe.

What the hell was this Barbary ape doing in Iron Age Ireland?

What the hell is in this Romanian wall painting?

Watch out for those crinolines!

Watch out for those rock-dwelling elves!

Watch out for the lightning bolts!

Plymouth is really humming!

The night sky as you've never seen it before.

Pirates:  Underrated scientists?

A curious mystery involving an alleged shipwreck and a Welsh bone-setter.

An 1809 breakfast, brought to you from the same people who gave the world Necropants.

You know, considering what the average specimen of humanity is like, I've often thought a lot of people were better off not "finding themselves."

We need a Fortean Perry Mason to solve The Case of the Combustible Countess.

Cheltenham makes hay while the sun shines.

Forging Galileo.

A premature burial that acted as a matchmaker.

It's kinda sad when you become President of the United States (not to mention Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) and what you're mainly remembered for is your bathtubs.

Exploring the weird, wonderful world of archaeoacoustics.

The 19th century, in living color.

Ann Debar, one of the great Victorian charlatans.

An ancient Welsh kingdom reemerges from the sea.

Miles Pierce, a leading candidate for the world's worst selfie.

The "Syrian Pompeii."

A fond look back at the Fejee Mermaid, once the pride of New York.

John Murray Spear and his mechanical Messiah.

Madame Bob:  Lion tamer, race car driver, arranger of elopements.  I would have loved to have seen her business card.

Edward Warren: the first American to successfully take a balloon trip.

We're all Sherlock Holmes now:  how armchair detectives are using the internet to solve cold cases.

I'll say this for the Regency era:  when they wanted to shock their guests, they didn't mess around.

Midsummer Eve and the Black Death.

Pirate Cats and Polio.

A shotgun wedding with a twist, 1906.

It's a dog's life.  Luckily for us humans.

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders:  over 200 years later, still one of England's most notorious crimes.

A duel to the death.  By starvation.

Fanny Murray, 18th century Queen of the Courtesans.

Grace O'Malley, 16th century Irish pirate queen.

Forbes Winslow, offbeat alienist.

Our image of the week:

And, finally, a favorite tune of mine from the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra, "The Old Man of Hoy." Just because.

See you all on Monday, when I will be reviving the tale of my favorite forger.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via British Newspaper Archive

Here is a mystery from 1921 centering around poltergeist activity in a London home. As you will see, it had a more tragic ending than most such tales. From the "Aberdeen Journal," February 18:

The mystery of the bewitched house at Ferrestone Road, Horrsey, is to be investigated immediately by the Society for Psychical Research. A prominent member of the society has placed himself in communication with the distracted household, and his services have been gratefully accepted.

The theory that the whole trouble is due to the powers of Gordon Parker, the twelve-year-old nephew of Mr. Frost, the householder, received a rude shock yesterday. There was fresh trouble early in the day, when the boy Gordon was not in the house. According to Mr. Frost, the disturbance was renewed at 7 a.m. A pin cushion and other articles were flung from the chest of drawers to the floor. An orange lifted itself off a chair and dropped on the children's bed. A gown was overturned on a chair. The children, Frost insists, could not have touched any of these things. Members of Mr. Frost's household have been cross-examined and re-examined during the last few days by numberless inquirers. They quite admit that their story seems fantastic beyond belief; but they ask the sceptics what motive they could have for concocting such a tale and for breaking up their own home.

As anyone who visits the house can see, the manifestations, whether spiritualistic or not, have done material damage. Windows and pictures and crockery are broken, and the walls are scarred where pieces of coal have struck the wall paper. A woman neighbour who called to express sympathy states that a piece of coal, thrown from apparently nowhere, struck her on the leg. Mr. Frost has suffered in health so much that his employer went home with him yesterday to make inquiries himself. "We sent the boy out of the room while we talked, and hardly had he turned the handle then there was a crash in the kitchen at the back. I ran out," said Mr. Millard to a press representative, and saw that some trays had fallen down and the boy was crouching frightened in a corner of the kitchen."

More details from the "Western Gazette," February 25:

What is the secret of the strange things that are said to happen almost daily in an eight-roomed villa in a quiet road in North London?

The occupants say weird occurrences are taking place. Loud explosions have been heard, lumps of coal fly in all directions, plates rattle, and tables and chairs go jazzing about the room.

This has been the state of affairs for the past three weeks, and a curious feature of the trouble is that nothing unusual takes place while a twelve-year-old schoolboy, the grandson of Mr. J. S. Frost, is away from the house. [Note: This contradicts what was said in the previous article.]

The Rev. A. L. Gardiner, of St. Gabriel's, Bounds Green, Hornsey, and the Rev. A. Chandler, vicar of St. John's, Wood Green, have interested themselves in the matter, and Mr. Chandler took the boy on Tuesday to sleep at his residence. Arrangements are being made by the clergymen and some friends to send the boy away to the seaside.

The Rev. A. L. Gardiner, interviewed on Wednesday, said:--

"I know nothing whatever of spiritualism, but my idea is that the boy is a 'medium.' His mother died in the house about a year ago and must, I imagine, be trying to communicate something to the family.

"On Monday the boy, with one of his brothers, was put to bed. I was in the house at the time, and a few minutes later we heard screams in the bedroom. We rushed up, and both the boys declared they had seen their mother, 'dressed in red,' at the foot of the bed.

"They also said that the bed had been lifted off the floor, and while I was the room several articles were dropped or thrown about from no-one knew where."

The boy was examined Wednesday afternoon by the family's medical adviser, who declared that he was in perfect health.

"I believe it is the spirit of my sister," said Mr. Frost, the tenant of the 'haunted' house at Hornsey, when discussing the strange events at his home with a Press representative on Friday.

"She is trying, I think, to get into communication with us," he added. "She tried to tell us something before she died, but passed away before she could make us understand."

Mr. Frost said the disturbances had continued all night at intervals. "Manifestations" similar to those previously reported took place, and articles fell about and were smashed. Gordon, the little boy who was thought to be responsible, is still away from the place under clerical care.

Occultists, church officials, and many other people have visited the house, and on Friday night Professor M. Gunnell, of the Psychical Society, began an investigation on condition that complete privacy was maintained.

Professor Gunnell's "investigation" apparently accomplished little. After this, the story died out in the papers, until this sequel was reported in the "Sunday Mail" on April 3, adding a tragic coda to the puzzle.

The "ghosts" in Hornsey's haunted house have, it is declared, brought about the death of Muriel Parker, the five-year-old niece of Mr. Frost.

"There is not the slightest doubt that Muriel's death was caused by the strange happenings in the house," said Mr. Frost in an interview. "When my two boys, Gordon and Bertie, returned to the house about a fortnight ago, the manifestations started again. Chairs were thrown about, and pieces of coal hurled against the walls. These occurrences were too much for Muriel's nerves, and she broke down. She was ill for nine days, and died yesterday. The doctor reported meningitis as the cause, but said that nerve strain had accelerated death.

"Sceptical people have laughed at the 'ghost stories,' and have said that we have caused all the happenings ourselves. Perhaps the death of my little niece will convince them that we are not responsible. As a matter of fact, we are having a terrible time. We are forced to keep the two boys out of the house as much as possible; our home is being ruined, and we are all becoming physical wrecks.

"There is only one course open to us now—to more into a new house.

"We do not want any sympathy. It is too late now. All we hope is that people will think a little in the future before they poke fun at things which are beyond their understanding."

Muriel, it stated, took no notice of the happenings for some time, but one day a chair fell over near her, and she bit her tongue. She afterwards showed signs of extreme nervousness.

Presumably the Frost family did indeed move away after this. In any case, their peculiar ordeal fades into history at this point, so we have no idea when--or if--their troubles were satisfactorily explained.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Arkansas Ghost Trial

In January 1929 a man calling himself Connie Franklin drifted, apparently by chance, into the hamlet of St. James, Arkansas, and inadvertently proved that even the most nondescript people can, in the blink of an eye, be thrust straight into The Weird.

Franklin found work as a timber-cutter and farm hand, and found entertainment in the person of a local girl, sixteen-year-old Tiller Ruminer. The two became so close so quickly that, Ruminer later swore, on March 9 they set out for the nearest Justice of the Peace to get married.

Instead—so she later told authorities—she and Franklin were attacked by a gang of local men, Hubert Hester, Herman Greenway, Joe White, and Bill Younger. She stated that Hester and Greenway raped her, after which she was forced to watch as the others beat Franklin, killed him, and burned his body in the woods.

Ruminer initially told no one of this horrifying incident—out of fear of reprisals, she later claimed. Some in St. James assumed that Franklin had, as such rootless types do, simply wandered out of town as aimlessly as he had wandered in. Others, however, found his abrupt departure highly suspicious. If Franklin had left voluntarily, they wondered, why did he leave his knapsack holding all his possessions behind? Why did his mail continue to be delivered to the local post office?

Chief among the St. James skeptics was a Bertha Burns. She did a bit of amateur detective work and found a bloody hat in the woods that she identified as Franklin’s. Details of what happened next—who said what to whom when—are conflicting, but it’s most likely that Burns went to the local sheriff who, after conducting a rather lackadaisical investigation, presented what little he knew to the grand jury. Ruminer declined to testify, so in the absence of any other evidence—not to mention a body—the jury refused to grant an indictment.

The mystery of Franklin’s disappearance remained dormant until that summer, when a woman claiming to be Franklin’s sister came to St. James in search of him. That inspired Burns to excavate the bloody hat—supposedly, the still-fearful Ruminer had buried it in a jar—after which she led the sheriff and some of his deputies into the woods near her home. Burns triumphantly presented them with a pile of ashes and charred bones which was, she declared, all that remained of Connie Franklin. She also told of hearing a dreadful scream coming from that area on the night Franklin disappeared. Sheriff Johnson confronted Ruminer with these new findings. Finally, after “long and tedious questioning,” and promises that she would be protected, the girl told her ghastly tale. Soon after that, a cousin of Ruminer’s, a young deaf-mute named Reuben Harrell, came forward. He gave a written statement claiming that he had seen Connie Franklin’s dead body being carried through the woods on the bloody night in question. He explained that, like Ruminer, he had been too terrified to tell anyone of what he had seen.

While the bones were sent to the state crime lab for examination, the grand jury immediately issued indictments for Franklin’s murder. Although a townsman named Alex Fulks had not been named in Ruminer’s initial accusation, he was now included in the list of indictments. (It should be noted that just a few months previously, Burns had successfully pressed charges against Fulks and several other men for beating her husband in retaliation for some bit of wrongdoing. This example of “frontier justice” earned Fulks and the three other defendants a fine of $40 each.) It may—or may not—be significant that the five men charged with Franklin’s murder were all known vigilantes. Even more suggestive is the fact that the very day after Franklin disappeared, four vigilantes—including Bill Younger—made a raid on the Ruminer cabin. They accused Tiller’s father, Charley, of stealing from one of them. The men beat the entire family, and then hauled off Tiller’s brother Hoyt to the aggrieved party's farm to work off his father’s crime. Tiller later said that Hoyt was also kidnapped to make sure she “didn’t squawk”—a clear suggestion that the raid was also connected to the Franklin killing. The defendants, of course, claimed just the reverse—that Tiller accused them of murder and rape in revenge for the attack against her family.

Fulks, Hester, Greenway, White, and Younger stood trial in December 1929. The defendants maintained not only that they were innocent, but that there had never been a murder at all. They all swore that “Connie ain’t dead,” and their relatives and supporters were determined to prove them right.

During the trial, Elmer Wingo, a resident of the nearby town of Morrilton, came forward with the claim that Franklin had spent the night at his house some days after he was supposedly killed and cremated. Many Arkansas newspapers ran Wingo’s story, along with publishing Franklin’s photograph. Relatives of some of the defendants offered a large reward to anyone who could deliver a living Connie Franklin.

This publicity garnered highly astonishing results. A cotton buyer named F.K. Marks was in Humphrey, Arkansas, visiting a farm owned by a family named Bryant. While there, he heard one of the hired men being addressed as “Connie.” When Mr. Bryant later referred to a “Mr. Franklin,” Marks put two and two together and added them up to mean a jackpot was within his grasp. He and Jack Applewhite, another of Bryant’s farm hands, resolved to persuade Franklin into returning to St. James, after which they would split the reward money.

The next morning, they somehow convinced Franklin that he could not allow such a miscarriage of justice, bundled him in Marks’ truck, and sped off.

They soon found they had some competition for their little golden goose. The Bryants, it seems, had also been trying to persuade Franklin to come forward so they could collect the reward. The two parties made a frantic race of it, but the Marks team won and triumphantly presented their prize to one of the defense attorneys in the case.

The newcomer immediately recognized relatives of the defendants, and they joyfully recognized him. (Of course, they probably would have done so no matter who the man was.) It was looking like there would be a speedy, if highly bizarre, end to the case.

Or, rather, there would have been, if not for certain unanswered questions. If this was Franklin, why had he left St. James so suddenly? Why would Tiller Ruminer concoct such a gruesome story of torture, rape and murder in order to cold-bloodedly send to the gallows men she knew to be innocent? And what of the bones? And the bloody cap? And the eyewitness testimony of Mrs. Burns and Reuben Harrell?

In short, many people were convinced that this man posing as “Connie Franklin” was a hired ringer.

The Sheriff prepared a lineup for the newcomer, posing Tiller in the midst of a bevy of similar-looking girls. The new Franklin was challenged to pick out his old sweetheart. He immediately walked up to the right girl and said matter-of-factly, “Hello, Tiller.”

Tiller, clearly very shaken, insisted that this man was completely different from the Connie she had known. He responded by glibly rattling off any number of personal details about their relationship. By the end of the interview, the girl was practically in tears, but she stubbornly maintained that this man was a stranger to her.

Hugo Williamson, the understandably irritated prosecuting attorney, announced ominously that if this man indeed turned out to be Franklin, “somebody had lied and somebody was going to jail.”

It was soon learned that among the leading liars in this story was Franklin himself. It turned out that his real name was Marion Franklin Rogers. Although in St. James he had claimed to be twenty-two years old, he was actually thirty-three. He had been placed in the state mental hospital in 1926. He escaped three months later, and had been on the run ever since. Oh, and he also had a wife and several children that he had abandoned.

The murder trial continued while the grand jury struggled to establish whether or not a murder had been committed at all.

Rogers’ identity was established on the basis of testimony from witnesses—including family members--who had known him before and after his “murder,” as well as through handwriting, fingerprint, medical and dental evidence obtained from the Arkansas State Hospital.

Ruminer now conceded that she had not actually witnessed Franklin being killed or burned. She had only seen him being beaten by the other men. However, she insisted that the rest of her story was true. Tiller, along with Burns and Harrell, continued to assert that Rogers was not the man they had known in St. James. Coleman Foster, who had been one of Franklin’s few friends in St. James, also said Rogers was a complete stranger. Meanwhile, the state health officer announced that the bone fragments and teeth found in the woods were too incomplete for him to be able to state if they were Franklin’s—or even human. A dentist took the stand asserting that the teeth were those of a dog or sheep. The defense argument was that enemies of the defendants had exploited Franklin’s disappearance as a means of framing them for murder.

Trial onlookers got to see the highly unusual sight of a man taking the witness stand in his own murder trial. Rogers testified that he and three of his accused murderers got drunk together on the night he was supposedly killed. They were all on their way to get the marriage license, when he fell off his mule, injuring himself badly enough to keep him from completing the journey. (He also hit his head on a rock, which was how his hat got bloody.) The following day, Tiller told him that the marriage was being postponed until fall. He said he replied that if she did not marry him that very day, he would leave town and never come back.

She didn’t, so he left.

This Ozark Martin Guerre was too much for the jury. They announced they were hopelessly deadlocked, but after the judge urged them to bring this long and expensive trial to some sort of conclusion, they acquitted the defendants of murder. However, the judge held Hester and Greenway under $2500 bail on the charge of rape. (The charges were dropped a year later, for reasons unknown to us.) It is said that the judge was so appalled by the whole embarrassing mess that he ordered that all the records in the trial destroyed.

This is one of those cases that may have been settled, but was by no means resolved. If the defendants were innocent, why did Ruminer bring such dreadful accusations against them? If Franklin had abandoned her, surely he would have been the target of her revenge? And if she knew Franklin was not dead, why run the risk of saying he had been murdered, knowing that at any time, he could be brought forward to prove she had perjured herself? And what motive did Burns and Harrell have to lie? Did someone with a grudge against the five defendants somehow force them all to deny that Rogers was Franklin? If so, who? It was also never explained what motive the defendants would have to murder Franklin so savagely.

The man they found in Humphrey was most likely Marion Rogers. But was Rogers the man who had been in St. James? Could the friends and family of the defendants have found this plausible-enough lookalike and bribed him to play a role? Franklin was not in St. James long enough for the townspeople to be sufficiently familiar with him to make a positive identification. Ruminer, who had known Franklin better than anyone in that town, maintained to the end that Rogers was not her ex-fiance.

After the trial, life resumed its old dreary course for everyone involved. Tiller Ruminer married and raised a family in the same crushing poverty she had known all her life. Rogers went back to his nomadic existence. In 1932, he was found lying unconscious along a road in the Arkansas delta. He died a few days later, of a combination of exposure and appendicitis.

“Already enough has been said and enough opinions expressed to fill a library,” one reporter grumbled during the trial. “And still nobody seems to know anything about anything.”

We still don’t know. The “Arkansas Ghost Trial,” as it was called, remains one of American history’s most perplexing judicial episodes.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company wants it known that we welcome our new cat overlords:

With that said, it's on to the links:

Who the hell was poor Little Albert?

Who the hell were the Red Deer Cave People?

What the hell is this Oopart?

What the hell are these Caucasus dolmens?

What the hell happened to Ramon Pereyra in 1968?

What the hell happened over Nuremberg in 1561?  With illustrations!

What the hell is happening to Shropshire sheep?

What the hell is happening to European radar?

Why the hell is this mummy blinking?

Watch out for those seven-headed monsters!

Watch out for those Black Dogs!

Watch out for those lawn mowers!

Watch out for those Worems in the Teeth!

Watch out for those Rainbow Orbs!

Watch out for those Blue Holes!

Watch out for those maniacal raving Beast Men!

More than anything else, watch out for this guy.

New Zealand is really booming!

Summer's almost here!  Be your own life-jacket!

The Pope and the Impaler.

17th century foodies run amok.

Meet some late-Victorian cats.

What's the one thing creepier than a live stalker?  A dead one, of course.

The details of Richard III's reburial have finally been completed.  I've seen a lot of snotty comments online about this new tomb--the general theme is that he's going from one car park to another--but I rather like the design.  I wish that new Poe statue in Boston was half this tasteful.  In any case, let's hope this most controversial of kings can now finally rest in peace.

...Well, maybe he will, maybe he won't.  Is this where Richard really wanted to be buried?

Speaking of burials, here's a touching look at America's oldest pet cemetery.

An amazing 18th century miniature book of portraits.

A list of people who picked really lousy times to die.

Selling a human skull is not as easy as you might think.

Not enough ghosts in your life?  Consider moving to Agnew, Michigan.

The mystery of the Italian Princess' fly.

Investigating a 19th century Washington tomb.

69 Charlotte Street hosts a Fortean house party.

A British lady's description of Waterloo.

The royal nurses of World War I.

Looking for World Cup predictions?  Well, don't count on the pandas.

That time we nearly nuked North Carolina.  Hey, mistakes happen from time to time.

Because I know you're all longing to know what being executed with molten gold is like, here you go.  Spoiler alert:  It isn't fun.

Hitler's spending his afterlife with great-granny.  It is not explained if this is eternal punishment for Adolf or for Grandma.

A brief history of the Flapper.

"Don't tell me women/Are not the stuff of heroes."  Qiu Jin certainly was.

A peek at George III's medical records.

A description of a typical upper-class medieval Russian wedding.

The Victorian mania for seaweed.

The first air crash fatalities, 1785.

Hard times for a magician, 1628.

And, finally, meet Mariska, the Houdini Horse.

Thus closes yet another Link Dump. See you on Monday, when I'll be posting the story of Martin Guerre Redux in 1920s Arkansas.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

When Crazy Cat Ladies Go to War. This court case comes from my beloved "Illustrated Police News" for March 9, 1895:

At the Bloomsbury County Court Judge Bacon heard an amusing case, in which Miss Ursula Cockburn Dickinson sued Mrs. Sarah Clements for the return of £2 2s, the price paid for a sable-coloured Persian cat, which the plaintiff alleged was not equal to warranty.

The plaintiff, who resides at Londesborough Lodge, London Road, Worcester Park, stated that she was very fond of Persian cats, and possessed a very fine female specimen, whom she called by the pet name of Queen May. For some time she (Miss Dickinson) had been desirous of obtaining a companion for the animal, and at the beginning of the present year she saw an advertisement, and, in consequence, wrote to the defendant at Rochester Place, Camden Road, Kentish Town. After some correspondence, it was arranged that she should have a cat for £2 2s, the animal being guaranteed to be a "dark sable tabby Persian stud cat," but Miss Dickinson informed his Honour that, being suspicious that all was not as it seemed, she said she would only take it "on sale or return." To convince her the defendant said she would cut a bit of the fur off the cat's back and send it to her by post. This being done, the plaintiff sent the money and received the cat. To her surprise she found that the animal sent was not a Persian cat at all, but only an ordinary London tomcat. (Laughter.) She wrote to the defendant, accusing her of palming off a sham upon her, and demanded the return of her money. This course, however, was not adopted.

The defendant assured his Honour that the cat sold was a Persian one--sable, tabby, and a male. She would be glad if his Honour could only see the cat. Her husband, a naturalist, had lately died, and she was giving up the business.

The plaintiff called her maid-servant, who proceeded to place on the registrar's table in front of the learned judge three baskets. On the first being opened a magnificent Persian cat stepped majestically out, and was introduced to the judge as Queen May. The second basket was then opened, the plaintiff at the same time remarking as another cat appeared, "This, your Honour, is the miserable specimen she sent me."

The defendant (picking up the rejected cat and balancing it in her hand): Miserable! Yes, it isn't half the cat he was when he left his home.

Plaintiff: What, if it hadn't been for the kindness he has received from me he would have been dead long since.

The third box was then opened, and the occupant, another cat, plaintiff said was an animal caught on the walls--an ordinary London tomcat--and appealed to the learned judge to say whether the defendant's cat was not of the same breed. (Laughter.)

via British Newspaper Archive

His Honour, after inspecting Queen May and her companions, said he did not know very much about cats. He could, however, see that the one sold to the plaintiff was not of Persian breed, and gave judgment for the plaintiff, a decision which was received with applause by a crowded and vastly amused court.

To me, this story ended on a rather tragic note. I heartily dislike people who value pets just by appearance, so even though Miss Dickinson was probably scammed, anyone who refers to any cat as a "miserable specimen" loses my sympathy. Her new cat may not have been a purebred Persian, but I'm sure he had a fine personality, if she had only given him a chance.

I do wonder what happened to this poor rejected cat--as well as that "ordinary London tomcat" they had appropriated as an exhibit. I hope they both found homes worthy of them.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Alexandra David-Neel, Explorer and Self-Made Tibetan

"The attitude which these teachings advocate is one of a strong will to know all that is possible to know, never halt on the road to investigation which extends infinitely far before the feet of the explorer."
-Alexandra David-Neel, "The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects"

Some of history's most unusual people have come from the most ordinary, traditional backgrounds. One good example is Alexandra Marie David, who was born into a humble, bourgeois French family in 1868. The little girl was raised to have an uncomplicated, thoroughly anonymous existence. Instead, she became one of the most unconventional explorers in modern history.

Alexandra's childhood was desperately unhappy. Although she was devoted to her father, she had no love for her rigid, puritanical mother, and the two often quarreled. She detested her carefully restricted little world, and dreamed of a life full of travel and adventure. The minute she was old enough to fend for herself, she set out to make those dreams come true. While still a teenager, she fled home and family for the life of a wanderer. Alexandra's spiritual leanings were equally restless in nature. She became a member of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society, the Freemasons, and various feminist and anarchist societies. Her greatest love, however, was Oriental culture.

Miss David became a highly successful opera singer, a career that took her around the world. However, even that soon proved too tame an existence for her liking. In 1903, she took up journalism. In 1904, she married a distant cousin, Philippe Neel. Although she was genuinely fond of her husband, it was a marriage of convenience, with the couple seeing very little of each other after the wedding. To be blunt, she married him in order to obtain funds for her obsession with travel. The new Mrs. Neel made no secret of the fact that she despised the institution of marriage and found sex repulsive. It is hard to say what Philippe got out of their relationship, but he seemed to have little complaint with their unorthodox union, and continued to support her until his death in 1941. While Mrs. Neel lived in London, occupying herself with writing and studying Eastern sacred literature, Mr. Neel continued his work as a railroad engineer in Tunisia.

Alexandra David-Neel had long dreamed of touring Asia. and in 1911 her husband provided her with the money to travel to India, where she impressed everyone with her deep knowledge and love of Buddhism. She even obtained two private audiences with the Dalai Lama--the first European woman to be granted this honor. During her stay, she gradually shed her Western identity. She became fluent in Tibetan, and began to think of herself as a native of that country.

It is a tribute to David-Neel's imposing erudition as an Orientalist that many Tibetans felt the same way about her. She was welcomed at many Tibetan monasteries that were normally off-limits to outsiders. At one of them, she met a young man named Aphur Yongden, who remained her constant attendant and aide until his death in 1955. She continued her travels throughout India, China, and Tibet, but she was still dissatisfied. She had yet to feel she was a true Tibetan. The only way she could do that, she decided, was to train for their priesthood, to experience all the rigorous mental and physical hardships required for their spiritual leaders.

She became the disciple of a Tibetan occult master--believed by many to be a wizard--Gomchen of Lachen. Beginning in 1914, David-Neel spent two solid years living in a cave adjoining his atop a high mountain, facing all the harshest elements while he schooled her in tantric Buddhism. Hers had always been an ascetic and ambitious nature, but this was certainly the ultimate test of her devotion to stoicism and self-discipline. She saw no reason why she should not accomplish such a feat. As she later wrote in her book "Magic and Mystery in Tibet": “All of these seekers after miracles would perhaps be most surprised to hear me say that the Tibetans do not believe in miracles, that is to say, in supernatural happenings. They consider the extraordinary facts which astonish us to be the work of natural energies which come into action in exceptional circumstances, or through the skill of someone who knows how to release them, or sometimes, through the agency of an individual who unknowingly contains within himself the elements apt to move certain material or mental mechanisms which produce extraordinary phenomena.”

She loved every minute of the experience. The holy men of Tibet were astonished by her accomplishment, and welcomed her as one of their own. Some of them thought she must be the reincarnation of a goddess. The British, who were currently occupying Tibet, were less pleased with her. They wanted no outsiders in the country, and this obstreperous more-Tibetan-than-the-Tibetans female was a most undesirable nuisance. At the height of the First World War, they threw her out. David-Neel shrugged and went on a tour of Japan and Korea. She went across China--then spiraling into civil war--crossed Mongolia and the Gobi desert, and eventually slipped back into Tibet.

David-Neel had her sights on the remote holy city of Lhasa, a place no white woman--and very very few white men--had ever seen. Just to get there meant a long, dangerous journey through China and over the Himalayas. She didn't think twice. Disguising herself as a Tibetan peasant woman, she and Yongden spent a year navigating bandits, blizzards, and mountain passes that went as high as 20,000 feet. On one occasion, all that saved the duo was David-Neel's incredible powers of concentration. After spending some twenty hours climbing a snow-covered mountain, they found their flint and steel were too wet to light a fire. Facing the immediate prospect of freezing to death, David-Neel used the ancient Tibetan practice known as "thumo reskiang"--raising one's internal temperature through the power of the mind--to warm the flint and steel sufficiently to start a fire. (She once wrote, "The Tibetans also tend to believe that everything which one imagines can be realized. They claim that if the imagined facts corresponded to no external reality, one could not conceive of their images...the power of producing magic formations, tulkus or less lasting and materialized tulpas, [essentially, conjured phantoms] does not, however, belong exclusively to such mystic exalted beings. Any human, divine or demoniac being may be possessed of it. The only difference comes from the degree of power, and this depends on the strength of the concentration and the quality of the mind itself." However, she added, "it is possible for these individuals to obtain, in certain cases, the aid of beings whose nature is other than human.")

In 1923, the fifty-five year old David-Neel finally arrived in Lhasa, still successfully disguised. After a stay of several months, the British finally caught on to her, and she and Yongden were again booted out of the country. The highly disgruntled David-Neel settled in France, where her book about this adventure, "My Journey to Lhasa," was published in 1927.

David-Neel lived in Europe for the next ten years, writing extensively about Eastern mysticism. In the 1930s, she returned to China and India, but was forced to flee in 1944 following the Japanese invasion. She finally returned to France, which remained her home until her death at the age of 101 in 1969. As she had requested, she was cremated and her ashes scattered in the Ganges River.

She died knowing the satisfaction of living a long and productive life. She had been given many honors, including membership in the French Legion of Honor and a Gold Medal from the Geographical Society of Paris. Even more importantly, her many books (most notably "Magic and Mystery in Tibet,") remain an invaluable source of information about central Asia and Tibetan Buddhism. She had a talent for making even the most esoteric concepts readily understandable to the uninitiated.  Her travels and experiences were unrivaled by any other Western woman of her time, and still serve as an inspiration for many people to this day.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

It's Friday the 13th!  Just remember...

Black cats are good luck!

And it's on to the links:

Where the hell did this golfing crocodile come from?

What the hell are Nessie's footprints?

What the hell is visiting Hinckley?

Pennsylvania is really screaming!

Watch out for those Cornish car door locks!

George Washington, Mother of our Country.

Or maybe it's just a really, really boring village.

England's shoes are being victimized by a foxy crime wave.

Margaret Gaulacher, nagged to death by Cotton Mather.

Some bad news for Charlemagne here.

The Wonder Hen who conquered New York, 1915.

I thought that this was appropriate, considering last Monday's post:  A brief history of 18th century hands.

"Spornosexual" sounds like the title of the world's worst X-rated science fiction film.  Which, now that I think of it, is a pretty apt description of the world nowadays.

Wild Talent:  H.G. Wells writes to Theodore Dreiser dissing Charles Fort, receives killer comeback line.

An illustrated guide to 1810 Cryer's Calls.  Duft ho!

Meeting Bigfoot in New Jersey, 1881.

Meeting Sea Serpents in Massachusetts, 1639.

Meeting Werewolves in Classical Antiquity.

A sad sequel to one of last week's links:  RIP, Poppy.

A how-to guide for prospective Yeti hunters.

A good example of why DIY guillotines are seldom a good idea.

Jekyll and Hyde meets California Dreamin'.  The results weren't pretty.

Lord Byron:  Just a boy and his dog.

Samples from the Dead Letter Office.  Don't ask for the return address.

I like knitting.  I like dogs.  I like men.  I actually think this one's kinda cute.

A short history of the executioner, one of those jobs where professionalism really counts.

Appropriately, the Victorians had the perfect fashion sense for those post-mortem photographs they liked so much.

Your Haunted iPad.

From Hell:  Was this the address of Jack the Ripper?

How to gamble like a proper Georgian wastrel.

And, finally, our Video of the Week: The Running of the Goats.

And it's a wrap! See you on Monday, when I'll be looking at one of the most unusual explorers in modern history.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

A story of a hoodoo ship from the June 17, 1946 "Western Morning News." Let this serve as a cautionary tale: When you travel abroad,  be very careful where you get your souvenirs.

A strange story of a Chinese curse which laid a hoodoo on a ship, culminating in the mysterious disappearance of a French millionaire banker, was told at Plymouth yesterday by members of the crew of the 10,500 tons Glen Line steamer Samwater, which arrived from Vancouver.

For six months the Samwater had crossed and recrossed the Pacific, taking cargoes of wheat from Canada to China without incident, until on her last trip M. Henri Bar, 60-years-old president of the Franco-Chinoise Bank in Shanghai, embarked to return to Paris.

He took with him 25 crates containing Chinese antiques and treasures which he had collected during his 30 years in the Far East and told fellow passengers and ship's officers that among them were agate drinking cups looted during the Boxer riots from the Imperial Palace at Pekin, which carried a curse threatening disaster to anyone taking them out of the country.

Then began a series of mishaps. First of all. while the crates were being loaded into the ship's hold, one of them struck and seriously injured a Chinese coolie. Three days later one of the British members of the crew began to suffer from delusions and, acting on instructions from a warship, the Samwater put back to Yokohama, where the man was taken ashore for hospital treatment.

For sixteen days after leaving Shanghai on her way to Vancouver, the Samwater had to battle with heavy seas and fierce gales until one day the weather suddenly moderated. Then it was discovered that M. Bar had mysteriously disappeared. During the nine months we were away from England we had bad weather only on those 16 days during which M. Bar was on board." one of the crew told the "Western Morning News." "Apart from those 16 days we had a particularly lucky voyage."

Capt. F. Howe, master of the ship, whose home is at Middlesbrough, said:  "The ship never stopped rolling after we left Shanghai until M. Bar disappeared. He left the saloon as usual that night announcing that he was going to retire.

"When it was found that his bed had not been slept in we made a thorough search of the ship, but there was no trace of him. It was a dark and windy night and we could only assume that while walking along the deck a heavy wave had washed him overboard.

"His luggage, including the treasures, which he told me were worth £50,000, were put ashore at Vancouver. From then until we reached Plymouth we had a pleasant and uneventful voyage, and apart from those 16 days I should call it a very lucky commission."

During one trip across the Pacific the Samwater came across the British steamer Empire Ouse which, with 10,000 tons of wheat on board, was lying disabled with a propeller missing.

The Samwater took her in tow and in 17 days brought her 3,200 miles across the ocean without mishap to Hong-kong, a feat of salvage which should bring rewards of thousands of pounds to owners and crew.

Vancouver police launched an investigation into Bar's disappearance--they suspected he was murdered in an effort to obtain his treasures--but they finally agreed with the captain and crew that he had likely accidentally fallen overboard.

Incidentally, the Samwater's troubles did not end with the puzzling exit of M. Bar.  In 1947 there was a fire on the steamer that killed sixteen members of the crew and two passengers.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Give the Howards a Hand!

On October 10, 1885, a railway worker named Arthur Rannage Howard walked from his home in Christchurch, New Zealand to the nearby watering-place of Sumner. Along the way, he encountered other pedestrians, who later recalled that he had mentioned his intention of going for a swim in the waters off Sumner--waters which, they noted with a shudder, were notoriously shark-infested.

It is after this date that Howard's story plunges straight into the even more dangerous seas of The Weird. The following morning, a boy found Howard's clothes and distinctive silver watch on the end of Sumner's pier. The owner of these items, however, was nowhere to be found.

Howard's understandably alarmed wife Sarah immediately sprang into action. Admittedly, it was not the sort of action one might expect. Her first move was to apply for payment of Arthur's three hefty life insurance policies, which had recently been transferred into her name. As proof of Howard's death was lacking, and the companies found it curious that this impecunious workman had been spending over half his income on life insurance premiums, they refused. Mrs. Howard then put an ad in the local paper offering 50 pounds reward for recovery of her husband's body "or the first portion received thereof recognizable."

This assumption that her loved one was now resting in pieces proved uncannily prophetic. On December 16, two brothers by the name of Godfrey marched into the Christchurch police station and proudly presented the sergeant on duty with an unusual trophy: a severed human hand, with one finger wearing a gold ring marked with the initials "A.H." It was, they cheerfully explained, probably all that remained of Arthur Howard. According to the Godfreys, they had just spent the day at Taylor's Mistake, a bay near where Howard had presumably drowned. Around two o'clock, they found this hand lying in the sand. No doubt, the brothers said, the unfortunate railway worker had been attacked by a shark. So, where was their fifty pounds?

Mrs. Howard was summoned, and instantly shed copious and heartrending tears. This hand, she confirmed, had once been attached to the body of her husband. The law, unfortunately for the Godfreys, saw the brothers not as amateur detectives and Good Samaritans, but as prime suspects in the murder of Arthur Howard. They were sent away minus their reward, but with the consolation prize of constant police surveillance.

In the meantime, doctors were brought in to examine this hand. Their findings were extremely interesting. This appendage--which had only been recently severed--was not been bitten off by a shark, but clumsily removed with a saw. It had been in sea water for just a very short time.  Oh, and the hand belonged to a woman, which presumably made it unlikely that it was Arthur Howard's. Further investigation revealed that the "A.H." found on the ring had not been done professionally, but was crudely scratched in.

The brothers Godfrey were presented with these findings, and the police earnestly asked to hear their thoughts on the matter.

The older brother, Elisha, then admitted that they had not quite told the police everything. He said that while he and his brother were at Taylor's Mistake, they were confronted by a man wearing blue goggles, a red wig, and oversized clothes, who told them excitedly, "Come here! There's a man's hand on the beach!"

The colorful stranger led them to a spot near the waves, and, sure enough, there was the hand, which they instantly realized must be Howard's. "Poor fellow," sighed the goggled one. He urged the brothers to bring the hand to the police and collect the reward. Elisha explained to the incredulous officer that he hadn't mentioned Mr. Goggles before because the man had begged them not to tell anyone about him, "as he did not want to have anything at all to do with it."

The police, naturally enough, greeted all this with professional snorts of derision. They took it for granted that the Godfreys were trying to gull them with the stupidest alibi on record, but as a formality, they made a few perfunctory inquiries in the neighborhood.

They had a big surprise in store for them. That came when others told them that yes, they too had seen a man in blue goggles and red wig hanging around Taylor's Mistake on the day in question. Goggles, they said, had shown them a paper with the Godfrey brothers' names and addresses on it, and told them that these men had found Howard's hand.

Once the investigators had picked their jaws up off the floor, they continued their search for this peculiar apparition. It turned out that Goggles--who gave his name as "Watts"--had been seen over a good portion of New Zealand. At one place, he was seen on a ferry. At another, he had been arrested for making "improper advances" to a "Salvation Army girl." (He was released when the lady declined to press charges.) He had been seen working on various farms--wig, goggles, and all. In one town, he approached a man named Beard, asking for help in opening a grave. (Beard recalled that "I told him to go away and not ask me such things, but I would like to see the man that asked him to do it.")

Most curiously, on the night of December 18, this peripatetic figure had been seen taking a long walk with Sarah Howard.

This last detail caused the police to arrest Mrs. Howard and the Godfreys on charges of insurance fraud. Soon afterward, Watts himself was nabbed walking the streets of Christchurch. When the clown garb was removed, this goggled Man of Mystery turned out to be none other than Arthur Howard.

Before the whole crew was put on trial for conspiracy to deceive the insurance companies and attempting to collect money through fraud, the police established that the Howards had never been legally married. The pair, both originally from Scotland, had been married on the boat they took to New Zealand, by the Scottish captain. No clergyman was present. Although the Howards had evidently honestly believed the marriage was valid, the judge in their case ruled that under the laws of New Zealand, it was not. The significance of this ruling was that, if the marriage had been valid, Sarah could not have been tried for conspiracy, because legally, husbands and wives could not "conspire" together. Also, she would have had the legal protection of the assumption that she had been acting under the compulsion of her husband.

The prosecution was unable to prove that the Godfreys knew of the insurance conspiracy, and they were accordingly acquitted. Sarah was, rather bafflingly, also found not guilty of both charges. Arthur, however, may have been acquitted of conspiracy, but he was found guilty of fraud and really bad taste in disguises. He received two years, with the judge commenting that he only wished it was possible to give a longer sentence for this "impudent and daring" scheme.

This is one of those cases that, while officially solved, left behind a grab-bag of messy unanswered questions. Whose hand masqueraded as Howard's? Where was the rest of this person? Why, instead of laying as low as possible, did Howard make such a flamboyant spectacle of himself?

No one ever knew. A Judge Alper recorded that Howard's lawyer, T.I. Joynt, confided to him that he knew the answers to these nagging questions. Unfortunately, before he could reveal them to the world, the lawyer dropped dead.

Somehow, that seems like a fitting conclusion to this case.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

As we await the possibly historic Belmont Stakes, Strange Company is in the saddle and ready to ride.

The cats were way ahead of us, of course.

And this week's links are out of the starting gate!

Why the hell was BOAC Flight 777 gone with the wind?

What the hell are the Senegambian Stone Circles?

What the hell happened to the Screaming Mummy?

What the hell was under W.J. Gordon's house?

What the hell flew over Belgrade in 1977?

What the hell is this?

Ontario is really booming!

Watch out for those Zombie Floods!

Watch out for those Alberta Nippers!

Watch out for those Ogden Monsters!

Academia is Hell.  Really.

Because what's summer without hitting the beach with your copy of "Crimes of the House of Austria Against Mankind?"

Sea serpents a go-go.

Oral history and Robert Herrick.

Georgia on the UFO's mind.

The story of the Ocean Child.

Charles Darwin: Survival of the Plagiarists?

The world's oldest trousers.  Not Necropants, thankfully.

The world's oldest cat!

The Lady and the Dolphin.  Sort of an X-rated "Flipper."

17th century whale does a photobomb.

A puzzle involving World War II, star-crossed lovers...and, oh yes, $40 million is riding on the solution.

A child-killer is sentenced to afterlife in prison.

Decoding Anglo-Saxon art.

So, who ever said being a Messiah was easy?

Feline Silent Film stars.

Creeping out Nikola Tesla.

Jane Reeve:  The short life of a Georgian-era girl.

A brief look at the heroic donkeys of WWI.

Timely:  A look at some Triple Crown winners of the past.

And, finally, good luck to California Chrome tomorrow. Sweep it like Secretariat!

So long for now, gang. See you Monday with a tale involving life insurance, severed hands, and clown costumes.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via British Newspaper Archive

This particular Mystery Flood is a bit unique. Usually, such stories have one or two newspaper reports, and then they disappear from view forever, with no follow-ups. The 1919 goings-on at Swanton Novers Rectory, however, had a few odd twists and turns that kept the story in the papers for several months. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean it was resolved any more neatly than the similar stories posted on this blog...

Here is one of the initial reports, from the "Evening Telegraph," August 29:

A Central News correspondent says that a mysterious manifestation is now the subject of investigation at Swanton Novers Rectory, Norfolk. For four days past various inflammable liquids, which appear to be petrol, paraffin oil, methylated spirits, and also water have dripped without intermission from every ceiling in the house. These liquids apparently ooze from the ceiling, but an examination has shown the plaster and laths to be quite dry. The trouble was supposed to be caused by the petrol lighting plant, but this has been cut off, and an expert has certified that the plant cannot be the cause. Meanwhile the house is uninhabitable, and the annoyance remains a complete mystery.

Another account commented that "the oil visitations present so many peculiar features that no single hypothesis seems to account for them."  So far, so weird. Then, a September 12 story in the "Western Gazette," announced an end to the riddle:

The Press Association's Norwich correspondent telegraphs that the Swanton Novers oil mystery has at last been solved. It was hoax, practised by a young servant girl. aged 15, employed by the Rector (the Rev. H. Guy) and his wife. Mr. Oswald Williams, the well-known illusionist, who is holidaying at Cromer, offered his services to Mr. Guy, and at his suggestion the house was shut up for three days and the girl sent away. During this period no liquid fell. The water supply was meantime cut off, and all liquids removed, save that of several pails, containing water, salted with common salt, were left about promiscuously. When the girl returned on Monday she reported further falls of liquid. This was tested and found be salted. Later Mr. and Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Guy arrived, and Mrs. Williams went secretly to the room above the kitchen, the ceiling which had been torn away in the search for the origin of the mystery. Peering carefully through a hole in the floor, Mrs. Williams eventually saw the girl take a glass and throw some of the salted water up to the ceiling. She was then confronted and accused, and, after first denying it, subsequently made a complete confession of the matter in the presence of the whole party.

As pretty and tidy a solution as you could hope to find. Rather than the canonical butler, the servant girl did it!

Well. In the "Hull Daily Mail" for September 11, we find that the mystery turned violent:

The oil mystery at Swanton Rectory is not yet cleared up. The rector and Mrs. Guy are confident the young servant girl, Mabel Phillips, is guilty of the hoax, but she emphatically denies that she has been the cause of the trouble or that she ever made a confession. Feeling, locally, is undoubtedly with the girl. It is pointed out that over 50 gallons of water have been thrown away, and it is considered impossible for the girl to have obtained this and thrown it to the ceiling without being caught. Another significant fact is that oil and water have fallen from the ceiling when the girl has been present with other people. The girl has been closely questioned, but no one has yet been able to trip her over her statements. It was stated on Wednesday that summons had been taken out against Mrs. Oswald Williams, wife of the illusionist, for alleged assault on Phillips Monday, by smacking her face.

The last act played out in the "Hull Daily Mail" on November 4:

The case of assault arising out of the oil mystery at Swanton Novers Rectory, Norfolk, brought by the parents of the servant girl Phillips, against Mrs. Oswald Williams, the wife of the illusionist, was heard before the local magistrate at Holt, on Monday. The girl stated that Mrs. Williams accused her of throwing salted water to the rectory ceiling, called her a "little devil," slapped her three times in the face, and tried by threats to force her to confess that she was the cause of the whole mystery. The Rev. Mr. Guy and his wife were called, and they admitted that Mrs. Williams caught the girl the wrist and accused her, but denied that she struck the girl at all. After a hearing lasting three hours, the case was dismissed.

I'm guessing that both the Guy and Williams households had a hard time attracting servants after this last episode.

As far as I can tell, this was the end of the matter. Presumably, the oily nuisance abated after Miss Phillips left the Rectory. Was the servant girl indeed capable of throwing many gallons of water and "various inflammable liquids" about unnoticed until those ace detectives, the Williamses (who impress me as a couple of publicity-hungry buttinskies) caught her in the act? If so, what on earth was her motive?  Where did she obtain all these different liquids?  Or was Phillips truthful in her assertions that she was merely the scapegoat for the mystery? Was someone else in the Rectory pulling a bizarre and seemingly pointless hoax? If so, who?

And if the Rectory soaking was not staged by someone in the household....what happened?