Friday, May 26, 2017
This week's Weekend Link Dump is sponsored by the Weekend Merry Makers!
What the hell was the Mimick Dog?
What the hell was the birthplace of mankind?
Who the hell invented potato chips?
Who the hell was Leonardo da Vinci's mother? Now we know?
How the hell did the Hindenburg catch fire?
Watch out for the Rolling Shot Ghost!
Watch out for those blackmail pills!
Watch out for those rogue cows!
Some facts about the Titanic.
The Frome Hoard: real-life buried treasure.
The Hawkhurst smuggling gang.
Russia's last coronation.
The Great Plains Indians and President Monroe.
A look at Mozart's son. Who probably deserves more than to be called "Mozart's son."
The Wonder Women of WWI.
The "Monkey Girl."
The triumph of Germanicus.
The "ecstasy of error."
The 18th century Instagram filter.
A clinic for "exotic pets."
Georgian-era watering places.
Legends of a drowned Welsh town.
The art of children's games.
Fun fact: Martin Luther's wife brewed excellent beer.
The Nessie of Sweden.
Some very well-dressed wells.
What four skulls tell us about urban life.
Was Amelia Dyer mad or bad? (My take: Embrace the power of "and.")
The rise of space archaeology.
In related news, Jordan is searching for an ancient underwater city.
Cicadas are acting weird.
This week's Advice From Thomas Morris: What not to do when you're in a frolicksome mood.
A 19th century heroine of the seas.
A selection of medieval book curses.
The Phantom Time Hypothesis, arguably the looniest of historical theories.
Victorian indecency at the beach.
Tabby's Star is getting weird again.
A Portuguese university has the preserved head of a serial killer. For some reason, I thought you needed to know that.
The UK's most dangerous autopsy.
Did this man prove ESP is real?
That time it rained fish in Oroville.
The Devil gets musical.
The England of John Constable.
Horace Walpole and Queen Charlotte.
A boxed fairy.
And that's a wrap! See you on Monday, when we'll look at a couple's mysterious disappearance. In the meantime, here's a trumpet concerto. Because I love trumpet concertos.
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
The latest installment of the "Boston Post's" "Famous Cats of New England" introduces a cat blessed with beauty, brains, and brawn:
Twenty-two pounds of spotlessly white catdom does not dwell in every New England town. That's why Laconia, N.H., wants Dick's name written high on the lists of New England's famous cats. "The Cat Beautiful" is the title held by this monster angora that is the beloved property of Mrs. E.S. Cave.
With his head not a bit turned by all the praise and attention that is showered upon him by townspeople and visitors, Dick is the most democratic cat in that staid New England town. He shakes hands upon request with all comers and will sit up and beg even for a piece of candy in the hand of a child passing by.
For eight years Dick has been the joy of his mistress' heart and has kept the home bounds clear of all invading dogs and cats. They have learned to have a wholesome respect for the fluffy white form that confronts them suddenly as soon as they set foot on the boundaries of the Cave domain. They do not stay to indulge in argument--not those that have ever met Dick before.
~January 3, 1921
Monday, May 22, 2017
You don’t see too many self-made Emperors walking the streets. Joshua Norton did his best to correct the deficit.
Norton was born in London, possibly on February 4, 1817. In 1820, his family emigrated to South Africa. In 1849, the young man joined the hordes hoping to strike it rich in California’s Gold Rush. However, he sought to find fortune not in mining, but in business. He grandly set up shop in San Francisco as “Joshua Abraham Norton, international merchant.”
His various business and real estate speculations soon paid off. It has been claimed that by 1852, he was worth the modern equivalent of about five million dollars. However, in that same year, his luck suddenly ran out. China, California’s main rice supplier, cut off exports due to a famine. As a result, the price of the grain immediately skyrocketed. Norton bought a rice shipment from Peru sitting in the San Francisco harbor for $25,000, figuring to corner the market. The day after he signed the contract, ships full of Peruvian rice of a far higher quality began to arrive on the scene. The price of rice crashed even more dramatically than it had risen, leaving Norton suddenly facing economic disaster. He tried to get out the contract, but the ship’s owners sued him, kicking off over two years of costly litigation that ended with a verdict against him.
By that point, the boom created by the gold fever had ended, leaving San Francisco—and Norton—in ruin. Some of his properties were foreclosed; others were sold at a loss. A client accused him of embezzlement. In 1856, he filed for bankruptcy, and sank into what appeared to be a permanent obscurity.
In 1859, Norton crafted what has to rank as one of the most original reinventions in American history. On September 17, the “San Francisco Bulletin” carried a proclamation that had been submitted the previous day:
“At the preemptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of These United States, and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall of this city, on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.
Norton I, Emperor of the United States”
On October 12, the “Bulletin” published a second Ukase from their new ruler:
“It is represented to us that the universal suffrage, as now existing throughout the Union, is abused; that fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions, and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled to by paying his pro rata of the expense of government—in consequence of which, We do hereby abolish congress, and it is therefore abolished; and We order and desire the representatives of all parties interested to appear at the Musical Hall of this city on the first of February next, and then and there take the most effective steps to remedy the evil complained of.”
He followed up by abolishing the state Supreme Court and firing the governor of Virginia, replacing him with Vice President Breckinridge.
By July 1860, the Emperor really got to work. He announced the Republic of the United States was being dissolved in favor of an “Absolute Monarchy.” In 1869, both the Republican and Democrat parties got the heave-ho as well.
The Emperor picked the perfect place to found his dynasty. San Franciscans have always cherished their crackpots, and they happily submitted to his rule. At opening night at the theaters, the best seat in the house was always reserved for Emperor Norton, with applause and fanfares from the orchestra to greet him. Politicians courted his favor. Police officers saluted him on the street. The local papers milked his growing legend for everything it was worth. A “Daily Morning Call” reporter named Samuel Langhorne Clemens often chronicled the Emperor’s reign. Local businesses invoked his name and alleged patronage as a bonanza of free publicity. In short, Emperor Norton became a hotly-exploited cottage industry for the city.
|The Emperor in military dress|
Everyone profited from the Emperor except the Emperor himself. However grand his proclamations or glorious his fame may have been, the former Joshua Norton remained a threadbare charity case. Although local restaurants and stores happily used his name for commercial purposes, they seldom bothered to show him any financial gratitude.
Every day, he would awaken in his 50 cent a night boarding house, wear one of the various second-hand uniforms he had acquired, and tour his kingdom. He appeared, in the words of biographer William Drury, “a kind, affable man,” who “spoke rationally and intelligently about any subject, except about himself or his empire.”
He was a benevolent and enlightened ruler. One of his closest companions was a Chinese man named Ah How, who was dubbed the Emperor’s “Grand Chamberlain.” Norton hated the violent prejudice shown against the Chinese, proclaiming, “We are all God’s children.” He toured schools and attended a different church every Sunday. (He explained, “I think it is my duty to encourage religion and morality by showing myself at church and to avoid jealousy I attend them all in turn.”) He patronized libraries, theaters, debating societies, lectures. He was an avid reader and an excellent chess player. He issued decrees calling for a bridge connecting San Francisco to Oakland, and a tunnel under San Francisco Bay--years before anyone else thought to actually build those structures. (To this day, the descendants of Norton's loyal subjects are campaigning to have the bridge named after the visionary Emperor.)
During the Civil War, many preachers took to airing their political views in the pulpit. The Emperor disapproved of “political preaching,” which he saw as a danger to the separation of Church and State. He issued a decree forbidding the practice.
Leland Stanford, then President of the Central Pacific Railroad, gave Norton a free pass which he used to attend sessions of the state legislature (he seldom approved of the proceedings,) and review military troops.
In the 1860s, Norton encountered a man who had known him back in the day in South Africa, and they met for a generally sane reunion. When the man asked the Emperor about his career change, he confided that he was not really a Norton—he was a Bourbon; a member of the French royal family given to the Nortons for protection after the Revolution.
The friend informed the Emperor that he was nuts. Norton replied calmly that a great many others agreed.
Over the years, the Emperor became San Francisco’s favorite tourist attraction. In 1876, Dom Pedro II, Brazil’s Emperor, visited the city. One of his first requests was for an Emperor-to-Emperor summit meeting.
Emperor Norton took to issuing “Imperial Treasury Bond Certificates.” He would sign them with a promise that they would be payable at 7% interest by 1880. They became highly popular souvenirs with locals and tourists alike. Local vendors made a fortune selling “Emperor Norton I” merchandise.
On the night of January 8, 1880, the Emperor suddenly collapsed on the sidewalk and died, presumably of a stroke or heart attack.
The next day, the top headline in the “Chronicle” proclaimed, “Le Roi Est Mort.” Funds were quickly raised for an appropriately royal burial at the Masonic Cemetery. The funeral cortege was two miles long. In 1934, when all of San Francisco’s cemeteries were closed, he was given a dignified reburial in Colma’s Woodlawn Memorial Park.
Whether Norton was a pathetic dreamer, a hoaxer, or an unhinged megalomaniac, as a native Californian, I can vouch that my state has had many far worse leaders, and very few who are better.
Friday, May 19, 2017
This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the cats of the month of May!
How the hell did David Douglas die?
Watch out for those haunted wineries!
Watch out for those ghostly donkeys!
Watch out for those flying dragons!
Watch out for those Victorian Magic Letters!
One woman's experiences during the French Revolution.
In which a man's second wife has to deal with the ghost of his first wife.
America's worst school massacre. (Full disclosure: I once briefly considered doing a blog post about this story, but almost immediately decided against it, because the murderer was just too sick and creepy for me to stomach reading about him in any detail, let alone writing about him. Yes, there's a historical incident that was too much for my blog. Keep that in mind if you're unsure about clicking the link.)
That time it was a big deal to watch someone get out of bed. Not something you'd want to do at my house, believe me.
18th century Freemason secret signals.
A child-murder from 1905. With bonus rotten parents.
Some people just can't be trusted to do anything.
A tribute to the oak tree.
This week's Advice From Thomas Morris: Men, this is what not to do with a candlestick.
For men and women: This is not what to do with a needle.
A reminder of the joys of Communism.
The Dollar Princess and her stage mother.
That time magic failed to turn a goat into a human boy.
Science analyzes Richard's Lionheart.
More on the so-called "Victorian Tear Bottles." This is nearly as persistent on the internet as the myth that Poe had an affair with Fanny Osgood.
Some East End toys from 1917.
18th century nude male races might be enough to tempt me to start watching sports.
Booze + Candles + Medieval home furnishings= One 13th century woman's unfortunate claim to internet fame.
William Blake's fairies.
Top of the Pops, 1783.
Let's talk space alien bipedal octopus dwarves, shall we?
How Paris got addresses.
Unraveling the mysteries of Inca cords.
Confessing to a skeleton.
Ancient criminal codes regarding torture.
A 19th century voyage to Calcutta.
What if life on other planets is less advanced than we are? (Less advanced? Now, there's a frightening thought...)
The varied history of an 1834 New York house.
The "disappearing triangle" of Ireland.
An 18th century French midwife and doctor.
The 17th century really liked drunken monkeys.
Let's talk hearse horses.
Da Vinci's music machine.
It wasn't easy being a medieval royal mother.
The Prince of Pick-Pockets.
This week in Russian Weird presents the world's oldest bracelet.
And that's all for this week! See you on Monday, when we'll look at America's first, last, and greatest Emperor. In the meantime, I recently read a bit about the life of Stephen Foster (his bio makes Poe's look like a non-stop laugh riot,) which reminded me of this charmingly upbeat version of my favorite Foster song:
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
A pleasantly creepy little tale appeared in the "Logansport Press" on June 9, 1960:
Another newspaper story added the distressing detail that a farmer lowered into the well a fish on a string. He pulled it up a while later, "slashed to ribbons." He fed the mutilated fish to his cat.
Fifteen minutes later, the cat was dead.
The well was eventually drained, but the "monster" had vanished. Interestingly, later that year numerous people made credible reports of seeing a "monster" in Hollow Block Lake, an abandoned clay pit about 30 miles north of Lynn, leading to speculation that Craig's beast had found a new home.
As for the answer to the mystery of what was in Craig's cistern, well, that seems obvious.
Cthulhu, come on down!
Lynn, Ind.-The monster scare has returned to Indiana. A few years ago it was the giant Churubusco turtle which gathered fame throughout the state but eluded capture until it finally was forgotten. Now it's the monster of Craig's Well. This monster, which is described as "an eerie beast with a dome-shaped head, two bulbous eyes and eight flailing tenacles as long as a man's arm," resides in a cistern on Dan Craig's farm, four miles south of here on the Randolph County line.
Dan Craig, 56, said he first spotted the "thing" about a year ago but has kept it secret until now. Eastern Indiana got the first reports of the monster scare last Saturday when Craig succumbed to curiosity and pumped the 12-foot-deep cistern dry. The bottom, covered with years of debris, disclosed the octopus-like monster crawling among the decaying timbers. "But in the gloom," Craig said, "he was hard to see." Craig described the monster's body as "mushroom colored" and said the tentacles have gray lobster-type claws on the ends. Many of the visitors who have come to his farm in the last few days have asked. "How did it get there?" Craig's theory is someone brought the odd creature back from the tropics when it was small. "When it grew to the dangerous stage," Craig said, "they looked for a place to get rid of it and picked my well."
Craig said he will have a man uncap the well and pen the narrow top so the interior can be entered with safety. But the job can't be done for two weeks. There is a hole near the bottom of the cistern which may be the mouth of a cave and lead to the outside. Craig reported. Exactly where it might go, he doesn't know. "In the meantime," Craig said, "I keep the well covered to protect the wife and four youngsters."
Another newspaper story added the distressing detail that a farmer lowered into the well a fish on a string. He pulled it up a while later, "slashed to ribbons." He fed the mutilated fish to his cat.
Fifteen minutes later, the cat was dead.
The well was eventually drained, but the "monster" had vanished. Interestingly, later that year numerous people made credible reports of seeing a "monster" in Hollow Block Lake, an abandoned clay pit about 30 miles north of Lynn, leading to speculation that Craig's beast had found a new home.
As for the answer to the mystery of what was in Craig's cistern, well, that seems obvious.
Cthulhu, come on down!
Monday, May 15, 2017
The history of spiritualism is littered with cautionary tales of overenthusiastic dabblers who sought enlightenment via the world of ghosts, but instead found themselves delving into dangerous psychic waters that brought them to disaster.
In the example we will be examining today, spirits may even have led to one man's murder.
In the early part of the 20th century, Judge Ludwig Dahl worked as a magistrate in the Norwegian town of Fredrikstad. He also served as mayor of Bergen. In his private life, Dahl followed more unusual interests than law and politics. From around 1915, he and his family became deeply involved in psychic and occult matters. After Dahl's two sons Ludwig and Ragnar died in separate accidents within a few years of each other, this hobby became what could be called an obsession. His daughter, Mrs. Ingeborg Køber, believed she had talents as a medium. She spent many hours in a self-induced trance, where she allegedly "channeled" the spirits of her deceased brothers. (Among the guests at these seances was Arthur Conan Doyle, who called Ingeborg "the most remarkable medium I ever came across.")
Dahl kept transcripts of these spirit communications, which he never doubted were completely genuine. The belief that he continued to have contact with his sons was the only thing that enabled Dahl to cope with his loss. "The passing of the two boys," he once wrote, "made our lives richer, fuller, than ever before." In short, the spirit world was becoming more important to him than the world of the living.
In 1927, the famed "ghost hunter" Harry Price visited Norway, where he made the acquaintance of the Dahl family. He attended one of their seances, where Ingeborg went into a trance and--so all the Dahls believed--communicated messages from Ludwig Jr. and Ragnar. Price was privately unimpressed. Although he liked the Dahls, and had no doubt that the family sincerely believed they were "talking" to their dead loved ones, he noted that there was no unimpeachable proof that this was truly happening. As evidence of life after death, he considered the experience something of a bust. However, he remained friends with the family and succeeded in finding a publisher for Dahl's transcripts of his spiritualistic researches. They were issued in 1931 with the title "We are Here: Psychic Experiences." The book received international attention, leading many to refer to him as the "father of Scandinavian spiritualism."
In 1933, Dahl's "psychic experiences" suddenly took an ominous turn. A family friend, Astrid Stolt-Nielsen, also fancied herself to be a trance medium. During one of her seances, she gave Dahl a grim message from his son Ragnar: the spirit announced that in August 1934, Dahl would have a fatal accident. The judge's specific reaction to this news was not recorded, suggesting that--as befitting someone who was convinced there is eternal life after death--he took the warning in stride.
On August 8, 1934, Dahl and Ingeborg paid a visit to Hankø Island, a seaside resort a few miles from their town. It happened to be the place where Ludwig Dahl Jr. had drowned fifteen years earlier. While Ingeborg sunbathed on the beach, the judge went out for a swim. He was an excellent swimmer, in very good health for his 69 years, and the water was no more than three feet deep.
This swim proved to be the last thing he ever did on this earth. While he was in the bay, something terrible happened. According to Ingeborg, he suddenly began to sink from the surface. By the time she was able to reach Dahl and pull him from the water, he had drowned.
A tragic and--if you believe in the ghost of Ragnar Dahl--unsurprising accident. Sad, certainly, but entirely normal.
|The site of Dahl's death|
Well, perhaps not. The inquest into the judge's demise revealed a number of interesting details. After his death, it was discovered that he had serious financial problems. There was a very large insurance policy on his life--which happened to expire one day after his death. There was also testimony from Christian Apenes, Dahl's deputy-mayor. In December 1933, he had attended one of Ingeborg's seances. Apenes said that during this trance session, Ragnar Dahl had, through Ingeborg, delivered the news that his father would die within a year. He would meet his end by drowning in shallow water. The spirit added that as proof of this claim, it would give this same information to another medium. (That is to say, Astrid Stolt-Nielsen.) "Ragnar" instructed that the prediction of Ludwig's untimely end should be written down and placed in a sealed envelope. Apenes dramatically produced this envelope, where it was opened in front of witnesses.
The peculiar circumstances surrounding the judge's death became the focus for an intense public debate over spiritualism. Was this, as psychic researchers insisted, proof of the afterlife? Or did Dahl kill himself under the "hypnotic influence" of the death prophecy? Or were the skeptics right in their suspicion that all this talk of spirit communications was merely a cover for something far darker?
Law enforcement began to cast a very critical eye on the only witness to Ludwig's death...his daughter Ingeborg. The autopsy on Dahl revealed that before he died of drowning, his neck had received a fracture between the fourth and fifth vertebrae. It was also noted that after pulling her father from the water, Ingeborg did not immediately summon medical help. Instead, she and Mrs. Stolt-Nielsen (whom she had supposedly accidentally run into) phoned her mother. It took Mrs. Dahl several hours to arrive at the scene. She was accompanied by Christian Apenes. Doctors were not called until it was too late for them to do anything but certify "death by drowning." Police officers were not notified until later--so much later, that lurid gossip spread that the judge had really been murdered by his family, in order for them to collect that much-needed insurance money. Apenes also benefited from Dahl's death--after the judge drowned, Apenes took over as mayor. The most popular theory was that Apenes had invented the "death by accident" prophecy, and then hypnotized Ingeborg into drowning her father on the beach.
The many questions surrounding Ludwig Dahl's death wound up being aired in Oslo's Central Criminal Court. Ingeborg herself instigated bringing the case to court, as she was anxious to disprove the allegations that her father had killed himself. Instead, she found herself facing a charge of being part of a murder plot involving her mother, Astrid Stolt-Nielsen and Christian Apenes.
Ingeborg's trial (which gained international fame as "The Witch Trial of Oslo,") dragged out for no less than three years. It became a battle of science versus spiritualism. The prosecution presented psychologists who opined learnedly on what they saw as Ingeborg's mental aberrations. The defense countered by quoting from the works of psychic researchers. Ingeborg spoke excitedly of eternal life and the Great Beyond. Her accusers talked of life insurance.
During the trial, it was revealed that Mrs. Dahl, who served as her town's treasurer, had embezzled public funds. The cash apparently went to pay the steep premiums for her husband's insurance policy. Several days after this exposure, she killed herself. She left a note admitting the theft, but vehemently proclaiming her daughter's innocence of murder.
What it all boiled down to was this: Did the judge kill himself so his family would get his insurance money? Was he driven to suicide after hearing a prophecy of his death from the other world? Did his family conspire to murder him? Or was his death mere mischance after all, with the alleged "message" from Ragnar being merely a creepy coincidence?
The jury, faced with this array of unproven, unprovable theories, chose to deliver an acquittal. Ludwig Dahl's death was finally officially ruled to be accidental.
Despite the jury's verdict, many Norwegians still consider Dahl's death to be an unsolved mystery. At least one criminologist even had his suspicions about the death of the judge's sons, wondering if "under the cloak of Spiritualism an extremely cunning criminal was carrying out a series of murders."
We will never know if he could have been right.
Friday, May 12, 2017
This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Zen Cat, Lord of the Green Onions.
Who the hell was Mary Checkley?
Who the hell was this San Francisco girl? Now we know!
Why the hell did Agatha Christie disappear?
Where the hell is H.H. Holmes?
How the hell did Dorothy Kilgallen die?
If Napoleon were alive today, he'd be the guy hogging the line at Starbucks.
A story of Japanese reincarnation.
The Devil thinks he's getting a wine bar, winds up with a church instead. Hilarity ensues.
Coconut water, anyone? With a monster chaser?
Those ever-popular letters from the grave.
A dissertation on American tobacco juice spitting.
Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites.
A legal case involving a severed finger.
A coachman's mysterious marriage.
A hot air balloon in ancient Greece. Maybe.
An ancient explorer in the Arctic. Maybe.
Ancient bodies in trees. Maybe.
An ancient Chinese in London. This one seems pretty definite.
More from the "We don't know jack about human history" file.
Victorian ballroom etiquette.
This week's Advice From Thomas Morris: How not to work in a bobbin factory.
Related: People find the oddest ways to die.
An execution related to one of my favorite moments in Weird History, the Affair of the Poisons.
The first great Frost Fair.
Let's talk about the booming trade in fake corpses.
A toad and a bearded female saint.
A Derbyshire "Lover's Leap."
A forgotten American patriot.
The animals who served in WWI.
A haunted colliery.
A village of Generals.
All you need to know about medieval dragons.
Two very different births in the Tower of London.
A look at Walpurgis Night.
Thus ends yet another Link Dump. See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at a spiritualist's mysterious death. In the meantime, here's some Buddy Holly.
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
This latest installment of the "Boston Post's" series, "Famous Cats of New England" pays tribute to a favorite topic here at Strange Company HQ: lucky black cats.
Because she dropped in out of nowhere on Christmas day--this good luck black cat that came to live in the household of John J. Gateley at 101 Brown avenue, Roslindale--the children named her Chris.So now you know: the cure for anything that ails you is to let a black cat into your home.
There isn't any money on earth that Mr. and Mrs. Gateley or the five children would take for that little black mascot of a Christmas present that came to them two years ago on Christmas. The day that Chris arrived every single one of the whole family was down with the "flu." That Chris, the black cat that crossed their paths all unsolicited, was the jinx that drove off the "flu" the whole family insist.
Therefore it is to be expected that Chris is quite the cock of the walk in the cheery, cosey Gateley home to which she annexed herself. No tempting morsel or favorite nook is forbidden Chris. When she, sinning black thief that she is, was discovered with a naughty paw gouged deep in the juicy depths of one of Mrs. Gateley's apple pies Mrs. Gateley saw to it that ever afterward a special little individual saucer of apple pie went into the oven for Chris.
Whenever the rolling pin comes out of the pantry Chris is all agog, for she is suspicious that apple pies are coming. And when the door of the gas oven is dropped at the end of the baking process, so that the pies may cool before they are removed, there is Chris ready to risk a burning of her paw, in order to know just the exact moment that her pie will be ready to eat.
Stairways have no interest for Chris. She uses the trellis exclusively to let herself up and down stairs, her favorite exit being by the den window and the porch roof, along the trellis to the lawn beneath. She knows a secret trail to the top pantry shelf, too, where eggs have to be kept hidden from stealing little black paws. And she climbs it and rolls the eggs out and breaks them and laps them up.
~January 2, 1921
Just don't forget the pie.
Monday, May 8, 2017
|Herbert Armstrong, circa 1915|
It was one of the most publicized poisoning trials in early 20th century England: 53-year-old Major Herbert Rowse Armstrong was accused of delivering fatal doses of arsenic to his wife, and attempting to do the same to a business rival.
Armstrong was a solicitor who lived with his wife and three children in Hay, near the Welsh border. He was a small, very dapper man with a jovial, pleasant demeanor. Most everyone in town liked him. Katharine Armstrong was a very high-strung, fretful woman endlessly obsessed with her health, and a stickler for etiquette that would have done Buckingham Palace proud. On one occasion, she cut short the Major's tennis game because, as she loudly reminded him, it was his "bath night." To all appearances, however, Herbert was devoted to his eccentric spouse.
By 1920, Katharine was showing signs of increasing mental instability. She went into fits of paralyzing depression, and periodically became delusional. In July 1920, Mrs. Armstrong made out a new will--or, rather, her husband did, as it was in his handwriting. In contrast to her old testament, which divided her property between her husband, her children, and other relatives, this new will left everything to the Major. Mr. Armstrong was in the habit of keeping quantities of arsenic around the house. The dandelions on his lawn were unsightly, he would sigh, and poison was the only thing that seemed to keep them in check. He kept the arsenic in neat little packets. He would fill a tiny squirt gun with arsenic, stick the nozzle against the weed's roots, and fire away. Herbert Armstrong: Dandelion Slayer.
Soon after signing her new will, Katharine's health swiftly declined. Her condition, both mentally and physically, deteriorated so precipitously that she was sent to an insane asylum. By January 1921, she returned home. Although her doctors still considered her mental and physical condition to be precarious, both the Armstrongs insisted that she be released from the hospital.
Mrs. Armstrong continued to deteriorate. She was unable to keep down food, and continued suffering from delusions and deep depression. In February, she died, aged only 47. Her physician said she had succumbed to a combination of perfectly natural diseases, and Katharine was given a quiet burial in the local churchyard.
After his wife's death, the Major took a little holiday abroad, and renewed his acquaintance with a widow he had met during the war, Marion Gale. The two discussed the possibility of marriage.
The only cloud in the Major's now-sunny sky was an unpleasant business complication. He and Hay's only other solicitor, Oswald Martin, were representing the two parties in a land deal. Various complications arose, and Martin became increasingly impatient. After about a year had passed, he finally declared the contract broken, and insisted that Armstrong's client return the down payment he had received.
Martin received an anonymously sent box of chocolates. The postmark was illegible. He and his wife appear to have never heard that old truism about never taking candy from strangers. They cheerfully put the chocolates out for guests at a dinner party. One of those guests ate the candy, and she became quite ill afterwards.
A few weeks after this incident, the Major invited Martin to tea. Over the meal, Armstrong picked up a buttered scone and placed it on Martin's plate. "Please excuse fingers," he smiled.
Martin ate the scone, drank some tea, smoked a cigarette, and, after some innocuous small talk with the Major, went home. That night, he became extremely ill.
After Martin recuperated, he had a talk with his father-in-law, Fred Davies. Davies was a chemist--the same chemist, in fact, who sold the Major arsenic. Although Martin's doctor had diagnosed him as having stomach flu, Davies insisted he had been poisoned. Davies had Martin's vomit analyzed, as well as the remaining chocolates he had received. Both were found to contain arsenic.
Law enforcement was contacted. Scotland Yard agreed that there were grounds for suspicion, but they said they needed to proceed carefully. After all, Major Armstrong was a respected lawyer, a Freemason, a popular pillar of his community. He was not the sort of man one heedlessly accused of being a serial poisoner. They promised to investigate the matter. In the meantime, they advised Martin to decline any more of Armstrong's invitations to tea.
This was easier said than done. No sooner was Martin back on his feet that the Major began bombarding him with invitations to have more of those enticing scones and delicious cups of tea. The more Martin declined these offers, the more persistent Armstrong became. The Martins became so rattled that they took turns keeping awake all night. Presumably, they feared Armstrong might break into their home and feed them scones as they slept.
Ten months after her death, Mrs. Armstrong's body was exhumed. Sir Bernard Spilsbury, England's most famous pathologist, performed an autopsy. He ruled that Katherine had died from a massive dose of arsenic. And the next thing the Major knew, he was standing trial for murder. When he was arrested, one of those little packets of arsenic was found in his pocket.
The evidence against Armstrong seemed overwhelming, particularly after Martin was allowed to testify about the tea party. Martin's story transformed the Major from a possible wife-poisoner to a most probable would-be serial killer. In fact, it was his testimony, more than anything else, that put the noose around Armstrong's neck. The most the defense could do was to suggest that Mrs. Armstrong committed suicide. Armstrong himself stoutly maintained his complete innocence.
To no one's surprise, the Major was found guilty, and he was accordingly hanged. He remains the only solicitor in British history to be executed for murder.
All the above is the "accepted history" of the Armstrong case. The tragedy inspired several books, a couple of movies, and innumerable chapters in collections of true-crime tales, all giving precisely the same story: the Major was as transparently guilty as defendants can get, and "the little viper" (in the words of crime historian Edmund Pearson) got precisely what he deserved.
This open-and-shut quality was why I never paid much attention to the case. I like a bit of mystery with my villanies, and the arsenic-laden Major seemed as unmysterious as murderers get. However, I recently saw an excellent TV-movie about the case, "Dandelion Dead." The film followed the usual assumptions about Armstrong's guilt, but I was intrigued enough to read more about him. I soon learned that there are at least some people who argue that the case against him is not nearly as iron-clad as most think. In fact, it has been claimed that the Major was the victim not just of a miscarriage of justice, but of a sinister conspiracy.
The revisionist view of the Armstrong case was laid out by Martin Beales in his 1995 book, "The Hay Poisoner." Beales was a solicitor who settled in Hay--in fact, he bought the Armstrong house. Naturally intrigued by the grim events that had taken place under his new roof, he began his own investigation. He obtained access to the original files of the case, including the defense material and other official documentation which have largely been ignored by previous chroniclers of the case. He soon came to a stunning conclusion: the executed man was very likely completely innocent. More than that, Beales believed Armstrong had been framed. His book looked at every bit of "accepted history" about Armstrong and his alleged crimes, and systematically refuted them.
First of all, there was the matter of Katharine Armstrong's second will, which has often been described as something orchestrated by her husband before he carried out his plans to murder her. In truth, as early as 1919 Katherine herself had expressed to relatives her fears that the will she had made out in 1917--when Herbert was away serving in the war--was no longer satisfactory. She explained to her sister that the will had not left enough to her husband, and now that he was safely back home, it needed to be revised. She wanted to make sure that if anything happened to her, he would have enough money to raise their children. While her 1920 will may have been rather informal, no one was able to prove there was anything irregular about it. In any case, Herbert had no need for Katharine's money. Before her death, his bank accounts were in credit, and his client list had been steadily increasing. At the time of his arrest, Katharine's personal income was completely untouched by him. As for the secondary murder motive attributed to the Major--the "other woman"--a closer look at the truth casts doubt on that as well. His relationship with Marion Gale--who had also been a friend of Mrs. Armstrong's--was perfectly respectable. She was a pleasant middle-aged lady who, he hoped, might provide a motherly presence for his children (the youngest of whom was only five when Katharine died,) and amiable companionship for himself. His motives in wooing Mrs. Gale appeared to have stemmed from practicality, rather than passion.
The fact that Armstrong kept arsenic in the house is not nearly as damning as it would seem to modern sensibilities. For years past, he had, for reasons of economy, made homemade weed-killer, using a recipe clipped from a magazine. Among gardeners of his day, this practice--as well as the little device he used to poison individual dandelions--was extremely common.
There is even a possibility that Katharine's long history of illness had nothing to do with poison. Beales notes that her symptoms--which had been steadily worsening for years, including when Herbert was away during the war--did not fit the classic symptoms of arsenic. They did, however, precisely tally with a diagnosis of Addison's disease, an ailment that, unfortunately, did not seem to have occurred to her incompetent, and later duplicitous, doctor.
Key to Armstrong's conviction was the claim by the medical experts that Katharine died as the result of taking arsenic within 24 hours of her death. However, the medical literature quoted by Beales proves that this was an overly dogmatic declaration. To make a long story short, Beales argued that nearly a year after her death, it would be impossible to say with certainty how much arsenic Katharine may have taken and when. (Complicating the issue is the fact that she took medicines and homeopathic remedies containing various poisons.)
Beales concluded: "Katharine could have taken the arsenic from the study cupboard on 16 February accidentally, believing it to be something other than arsenic. She could have removed some of it and continued to take it during her final illness. She could have taken it intending to take her own life. [Note: Katharine had, during her last months, often spoken of suicide.] Equally, Armstrong could have given it to her. However, there was no evidence that he did...No man should be condemned in this way. There must be proof of guilt and there was no such proof."
It is when Beales turns his attention to Oswald Martin and his chemist father-in-law that the story takes a dark conspiratorial turn. Contrary to "accepted history," Beales asserts that Armstrong had no motive to want Martin dead. Rather, Martin's illness was "a potential nightmare" for him. The Major had finally received the necessary paperwork to allow the disputed land sale to be completed on time, and with Martin incapacitated, there was the danger of something going wrong with the contracts. (Also, contrary to Fred Davies' assertions that Armstrong was "jealous" of Martin's practice, Martin was not taking clients away from Armstrong. If anything, it was the reverse.)
There is reason to believe that the famous tea party between Armstrong and Martin--"excuse fingers," and such--was not what conventional wisdom would have us believe. Martin stated that Armstrong had handed him a scone covered with (presumably arsenic-laced) butter. However, it was established that the scones were all unbuttered. Armstrong himself denied ever handing Martin anything to eat. His story was that Martin was free to help himself from the tea tray. Martin did not become ill until hours after tea, and after he had eaten a hearty meal at home. Beales argued that if Armstrong had poisoned him at tea, Martin would have shown symptoms much earlier. It would also have been a remarkably stupid way to poison someone. What if Martin had suddenly taken ill in Armstrong's home, immediately after eating food provided by his rival? How would Armstrong explain that? Finally, Beales noted that Martin's symptoms, like Katharine's, were not characteristic of a large dose of arsenic, particularly since the solicitor had completely recovered within 24 hours. It could well have been, as Martin's doctor had originally believed, gastric flu.
The box of chocolates sent to the Martins on September 20, 1921 was, in Beales' words, "an enigma." Martin himself testified that he and his wife had eaten a couple of pieces with no bad effects. Apparently at least one other guest at the dinner party had taken some, too, without becoming sick. Only two of the surviving chocolates were found to be poisoned, and that had been done in a laughably crude manner. A large hole had been gouged in the bottom of these chocolates, with a clump of white arsenic messily pushed inside. There had been no effort to even close the hole with more chocolate. It was as if someone wanted the arsenic to be noticed.
Beales believed that someone did: Fred Davies. Davies apparently disliked Armstrong and had taken to voicing dark suspicions about Katharine's death. He was also the first to propose that the chocolates had been poisoned--just like he had been the first to assert that Martin had been poisoned at the tea party. Beales pointed to the interesting fact that Davies had warned the Martins about "anonymous gifts sent through the post such as chocolates"--before anyone had told him they had received such a present. Davies took possession of the remaining chocolates, keeping them for a day before handing them to the doctor for examination. It was only then that it was found that two candies were adulterated. It was Davies who had insisted that Martin's urine be analyzed for poison--even though the doctor was convinced Martin was suffering from an innocent illness. It was Davies who provided the bottle for Martin's urine sample and then sent it and the chocolates off for analysis. Was Beales correct in his belief that Davies, in his eagerness to convince everyone that Armstrong had poisoned Martin (which would lend credibility to his claims that the Major had fatally poisoned his wife) tampered with both the chocolates and the urine sample? (In regards to the urine sample, Beales also notes that during Martin's illness, he had been dosed with bismuth, which contains arsenic. That alone could explain the trace amounts of arsenic in Martin's urine. As a side note, Katharine's autopsy revealed traces of bismuth in her intestine.)
No one was ever able to connect Armstrong with those chocolates. The brand was unavailable in Hay. The serial numbers on the box established where and when the chocolates were boxed. They came from a factory some distance away. Armstrong had not left Hay during the period when those chocolates were manufactured and mailed. As was the case with the tea party, poisoned chocolates would be an incredibly bungling way for Armstrong to poison Martin. How could he be sure his intended victim would eat them, particularly since only a fraction of the candies had been tampered with?
In short, all the evidence that Armstrong poisoned Oswald Martin was either astonishingly feeble or decidedly dodgy. And yet, this was used as vital proof that the accused had murdered his wife. The twin charges against Armstrong validated each other: How do we know Armstrong killed his wife? Because he poisoned Oswald Martin. How do we know Armstrong poisoned Oswald Martin? Because he killed his wife!
Beales convincingly argues that Armstrong did not receive a fair trial. His counsel, Sir Henry Curtis Bennett, put up a startlingly lackadaisical defense, failing to take advantage of the multitude of weaknesses and errors in the prosecution's case, and doing little to promote his client's innocence, other than his diffident suggestion that Mrs. Armstrong had committed suicide. Bennett did not even call any character witnesses, allowing the unfounded slurs made against his client--that Armstrong had syphilis and spent his brief widowerhood in pursuit of hedonistic pleasures--to go largely unchallenged. The advocate for the Crown, Sir Ernest Pollock, conducted a prosecution that in Beales' opinion, "bordered on the unethical." Beales made a strong case that the crucial evidence of Oswald Martin should never have been admitted. English law normally protects defendants from the introduction of other offences committed or allegedly committed by them. Beales noted that as a result of Martin's testimony, "the jurors were bound to be prejudiced against [Armstrong,] because if they accepted that he had in fact tried to poison Martin, they had to be predisposed to believe that he had administered arsenic to his wife. In effect, this meant that Armstrong had to prove his innocence, not that the prosecution had to prove his guilt, and the basic law of evidence had been turned on its head."
However, nothing about the trial was more biased against the defendant than the judge. Lord Justice Darling had a reputation as a "hanging judge" that was more than justified in his handling of the Armstrong tribunal. Before the trial had even begun, Darling was convinced of Armstrong's guilt, and he set out to do everything in his power to send the accused man to the gallows. He took every opportunity to boost the prosecution's case and disparage the defense. And as for his summing-up to the jury, Beales commented that "in the annals of crime" it would be difficult to find a judge's summation that was "more perverse and damaging to any prisoner."
Beales believed that if Armstrong's conviction had been appealed to the House of Lords, the admission of Martin's evidence would alone have assured that the verdict would be overturned. However, only the attorney general could grant permission for this appeal. And the attorney general was...Sir Ernest Pollock, the man who had just won a triumphant victory over the condemned man. It comes as little surprise that he refused the appeal. The last chance to save Armstrong's life was gone, and he was hanged on May 31, 1922. He steadfastly denied his guilt to the end.
According to Beales, many people in Hay believed that Fred Davies had been instrumental in sending an innocent and well-liked man to the gallows, and they never forgave him for it. He was essentially driven out of town soon after Armstrong's execution. Oswald Martin left Hay as well. Martin had been crippled during the war, and the lingering effects of his injuries, coupled with his unpleasant experiences during the Armstrong case, left him broken in body and spirit. He died not long afterwards.
"The Hay Poisoner" makes a plausible case that Fred Davies framed Armstrong for the attempted murder of Oswald Martin, and successfully reclassifies Katharine Armstrong's death as an unsolved mystery. The Major may indeed have poisoned his wife: he had means and opportunity, if no evident motive. However, there is a haunting possibility that he did not.
Friday, May 5, 2017
This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Kentucky Derby winners and the cats who loved them:
|1956 Derby winner Needles and his pal Boots|
|1957 Derby winner Iron Liege and Houdini|
|1958 winner Tim Tam and unofficial trainer|
That ongoing question: What the hell is the Shroud of Turin?
What the hell brought down the Hindenburg?
What the hell happened to Napoleon's body?
Watch out for the Burbank Bat Light!
Watch out for those bewitched spinning wheels!
How a fistula became a 17th century celebrity. Because the 17th century was just like that.
A horse-racing Run For the...Crape?
If you think George Patton was someone you wouldn't want to mess with, you need to meet his wife.
When pet squirrels were A Thing.
When moss saved lives.
When a movie was used to try to capture a serial killer.
Let's talk about Tinker Bell's sex life, shall we?
You've gotta love a guy who was nicknamed "The War Wolf" AND "King of the Trebuchets."
The machine that transformed London.
The strange disappearance of little Harry Browe, Jr.
So now you can control a turtle with your mind. Although, if your life's goal has been mental domination over a turtle, we really need to talk.
An essay on Poe's "Eureka."
An 18th century French ballerina.
A 17th century moon mission.
Film makers in 1910 California.
A visit to the rings of Saturn.
A Yorkshire murderer.
A Newmarket murderer.
Victorians were weird, but not weird enough to use tear catchers.
When cats go to war. (Mutterings from the gallery: "Aren't they always at war?")
The ancient pyramids of Nubia.
Meet Doctor Strange.
The India Office and the Russian Revolution.
You'll be greatly relieved to hear they've found the hoof of Napoleon's horse.
May Day and Mayday.
The billionaire pirate.
The ill-fated Lady Mary Grey.
The ill-fated Madame Récamier.
The really ill-fated Madame Elisabeth.
Know your fairies!
A look at Spitalfields in 1842.
The "Evil May Day."
Unity Mitford, Hitler's fangirl.
This week's Advice From Thomas Morris: What not to do with a saw.
The Lioness of Coalville.
Queen Victoria's governess.
The 19th century "Dandy Horse."
Murder on the Cotswold Hills.
And that's it for this week! We'll return on Monday, with the story of a famous murder case...that just might have been a terrible miscarriage of justice.
In the meantime, as usual this time of year, I'm inviting everyone to select their picks for tomorrow's Kentucky Derby. If you win, you get...um, massive bragging rights in the comments section?
And, no, I don't have a solid idea who'll win. Nobody has a solid idea who'll win. This year, I'm just going to wait until I see the post parade on TV, put a couple of bucks on whoever happens to catch my eye, and pray. Until then, here's John Stewart with horse racing's greatest song:
Wednesday, May 3, 2017
|Josef Mandl, "Apparition at a Grave," 1916|
This curious little Welsh tale was first published in 1892. This reprint is from the magazine "Bye-Gones," for December 14 of that year.
The Rev. John S. Simon tells the following story in the Christmas number of the Methodist Recorder. The story was told to him by his father, the late Rev. John Simon, who was born at Rhewl, and was a well-known preacher in the Vale of Llangollen :—
"One morning, many years ago, an excited group of villagers assembled under the yew trees in the churchyard. An extraordinary event had occurred. During the night a man who lived in a neighbouring village had been aroused from his sleep by a mysterious person who had entered his room. Following a beckoning finger, he had risen from his bed and hastened to Llantysilio church. To his surprise the church was open. Through the windows beamed ghostly light. He listened. He heard them denounce the then possessor of the Hall. He should not die a natural death; when he died the Hall would be seized by a stranger who had no legal right to it. These words the terror-stricken man distinctly heard, and then he retreated and fled to his village, The news was soon whispered abroad, and my father used to describe the solemn conclave under the yew trees, and the profound discussions of the rustic sages. Time rolled on. The owner of the Hall did not seem ‘one penny the worse’ for ghostly denunciation. One day, however, he was in his cellar decanting wine, when he cut his hand severely with a broken bottle. The wound was obstinate and would not heal. He went away from home, but the hand grew worse. Finally he died. On the day of the funeral a gentleman of military appearance presented himself at the Hall to take part in the ceremony. He was not known. The funeral cortege set out. A keen eye might have noticed that the stranger did not Join the procession. When the mourners returned to the Hall they found that they could not enter. The place was shut. The military man had taken possession. It was subsequently understood that he claimed the Hall in a stake he had won when gambling with the late proprietor. We believe that the estate was thrown into Chancery, remaining there for many long years. To the best of my recollection, I have given facts which sceptics, having purged their souls by repentance, may ponder.”There is a footnote to this story. In 1821 Thomas Jones, the owner of Llangollen Hall, died. Although it was believed he had made out a will, this document could not be found. The following year, an old woman named Catherine Jones (who was better-known by the delightful name of "Kitty Taerty,") dreamed that Jones' will had been placed in his coffin, under the deceased's head. Locals found her story credible enough for a group of men to turn resurrectionist. One night, they excavated Jones' grave, but a search of the coffin found nothing. While undertaking this ghoulish task, the nervous men saw a...something...moving in the churchyard.
They did not bother to investigate. The would-be grave-robbers reburied the coffin as quickly as possible and made a hasty exit.
Jones had no near relatives, so the estate wound up in Chancery, and was eventually sold.
Monday, May 1, 2017
George B. Saxton of Canton, Ohio, was the classic lady-killer. In the end, the tables were neatly turned when a lady killed him.
The dashing, well-to-do man had a long string of broken love affairs behind him, all destroyed by his unwillingness to commit himself to one woman. He became engaged at least twice, but on both occasions he chickened out at the last moment and heartlessly abandoned the women virtually at the altar. One of his ex-fiancees dealt with being jilted by dying soon afterwards--of a broken heart, it was said. Another consoled herself by running off with her family's chauffeur.
Saxton eventually moved on to a married woman named Anna George. Unlike most of his previous conquests, Mrs. George, the wife of a carpenter named Sample George, was of a considerably lower social class than the well-connected Saxton. Perhaps he thought this would make her more accommodating. If so, he made a very dangerous mistake.
This illicit love affair quickly became so serious--on Mrs. George's part, at least--that she left her husband. Sample retaliated by suing Saxton for alienation of affection, but unfortunately for him, Saxton had the money and clout to out-lawyer him, ensuring that the suit remained stymied in the court system for some time.
Showing a blithe ignorance of her lover's track record, Anna assumed that George would now marry her. Saxton proclaimed his eagerness to do so--of course, she had to get her divorce first. He displayed his willingness to marry her by offering to send her to South Dakota. After six months of residency there, he explained, she could get a quick divorce that would keep her name free of scandal back in Ohio. And then, he sighed, they could at last become one in the eyes of the world.
Mrs. George obediently zoomed off to South Dakota, and after the six months were up, returned to Canton a free woman.
She had a nasty surprise waiting for her. True to his previous form, Saxton proved to be all talk and very little action in the marital department. When Anna began to speak of setting a wedding date, he told her flatly that he did not feel ready to marry anyone. And the more she pressed him to put a ring on it, the more excuses he found for avoiding her altogether.
Before long, Anna came to the jolting realization that she had left her husband and robbed her two young children of a stable home for nothing. She was duped, and she was dumped.
Anna George, however, was not of the complaisant nature of Saxton's previous flings. She filed a lawsuit charging Saxton with breach of promise. However, Saxton was able to use his friends in high places to have the suit thrown out of court.
Anna then turned stalker. She began following her unfaithful lover all over town, causing such scenes that Saxton got a restraining order against her. Anna scornfully dismissed such legal niceties. She continued hounding his every move, filing more lawsuits against him, making increasingly angry threats against this man who had so casually ruined her life.
One day, when Saxton was out bicycling with his newest lady friend, a pretty young widow named Eva Althouse, Anna suddenly leaped in front of their path, pointing a gun at George. Like a highwayman in a Victorian melodrama, she ordered him to accompany her back to her home. He meekly did so.
When they were alone in her apartment, Anna delivered yet another angry lecture about his weaselly, caddish refusal to marry her, ending with a threat to shoot him if he ever saw Eva Althouse again.
After this episode, Mrs. Althouse got her own restraining order against Anna George. This was about as effective as Saxton's had been. Anna told at least one friend that she would kill Saxton if he kept seeing Mrs. Althouse. When it was pointed out to her that she risked the gallows if she did such a thing, she snapped, "I don't care!" She told another acquaintance that when her former husband's lawsuit was settled, "there will be either a funeral or a wedding."
While all this was going on, Sample George's old alienation of affection suit at last came up for trial. How times had changed. By this point, Saxton's fear was that the vengeful Anna might take her ex-husband's side and offer some embarrassingly damaging testimony against her old lover. Saxton set about trying to get back in her good graces. He swore to her that if she told the court that it had been her husband's brutality to her, and not Saxton, that was responsible for her leaving Sample, he really would marry her. He even set a wedding date. Meanwhile, Saxton's influential friends were able to persuade--or intimidate--Sample into dropping his suit in return for a cash payment of $1800. (Mr. George had recently remarried, which might also have helped persuade him to let bygones be bygones.)
No sooner was the threat of Sample George's lawsuit gone that Saxton's eagerness to marry Anna once again faded away. Once again, Anna was seeing her wealthy lover slipping away from her. The question was, would she accept defeat, as Saxton's previous girlfriends had done, or would she continue to fight? How would this impossible situation be resolved?
The answer to at least that latter question came on October 7, 1898. That evening, while Saxton was about to enter the home of Eva Althouse, (carrying champagne and pajamas,) he was confronted by a woman dressed in black. An eyewitness--who was, unfortunately, too far away to identify the woman--saw her pull out a gun and shoot Saxton twice. She began to walk away, when she heard her victim crying out for help. She calmly walked back to where he was lying in agony, shot him two more times, and vanished into the surrounding darkness. George Saxton was now very quiet, because he was very dead.
Saxton's murder presented the Canton police with a very delicate situation. The dead man, you see, was not just another dissolute playboy. He was the brother of Ida Saxton McKinley, wife of the president and First Lady of the United States. Law enforcement realized from the beginning that their job was not just to investigate a murder, but to manage a scandal connected to the highest office in the land.
Anna George, of course, instantly became the chief suspect in Saxton's killing. When the police tracked her down, she flatly refused to cooperate. She would not say where she had been the evening of Saxton's death, and waved aside all requests to reveal anything she might know about his death. Even after she was formally charged with murder, all she would say was that she wished to speak to her attorney. Even when her oldest, closest friends visited her in jail, she avoided speaking to them about anything concerning Saxton or his violently untimely end. (As for Eva Althouse, she claimed she was not at home at the time of the shooting. Under questioning, she admitted that Saxton had a key to her house, but insisted that this was merely so he could "water the plants and feed the birds" when she was away.)
William and Ida McKinley were also refusing to speak to the press. When they arrived in Canton for Saxton's funeral (which was kept kept private from everyone except family and a few friends,) the president and his wife had no public comment on their private tragedy. In those days before television and social media created a worldwide, unavoidable 24-hour-a-day spotlight, they were able to get away with this reticence.
Anna George may have looked like the most obvious of murderers, but prosecutors at her trial were faced with a discouraging lack of solid evidence against her. No one could prove she had been near the murder scene. DNA and all the other modern forensic tools had yet to be invented. Basically, all that could be said against the defendant was that she had a powerful motive. But motive is far from being enough to convict someone of murder.
Her lawyers mounted an aggressive defense, pointing out that the dead man was a habitual "destroyer of families," who had no doubt made many enemies among wronged husbands and discarded conquests. Anna George was hardly the only person who had reason to want Saxton dead, they pointed out. Who could deny the possibility that someone else took advantage of Anna's very public animus against Saxton by killing him themselves, knowing that she would be blamed?
The jury, after spending a night in deliberation, came to the only possible verdict: "Not guilty." Although George Saxton's death probably cannot be called a mystery, it remains officially unsolved.
William McKinley, of course, was also shot dead just three years later, giving Ida McKinley--who was, even before the double tragedy, a fragile woman subject to epileptic attacks--the unenviable distinction among First Ladies of having both her husband and her brother fall victim to assassins.
Anna George's life did not improve after her acquittal. Soon after the trial, she capitalized on her notoriety by embarking on a lecture tour, but it was an immediate failure. As a contemporary newspaper huffed, "the people decided almost unanimously that inasmuch as she had been vindicated by a jury of her countrymen, she should drop out of sight." In 1903, she married a Dr. Arthur C. Rideout, who proved to be a drunk and a gambler who was usually deeply in debt. Dr. Rideout hanged himself in 1906, apparently in the mistaken assumption that his wife would receive the money insured on his life. After her husband's death, Anna moved to New York, where she lived quietly until her death in 1922.