"...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, August 21, 2017

The Wynekoop Mystery

Rheta Wynekoop


It is indisputable that Rheta Wynekoop was murdered. However, the circumstances surrounding her death are so peculiar that there is still some doubt whether the person tried and convicted of her slaying was really guilty.

The twenty-three year old had been married for five years to a spoiled mama’s boy named Earle Wynekoop. As Earle found the concept of steady work distasteful, the couple lived in the Chicago home of his widowed mother Dr. Alice Wynekoop, a well-known and very highly respected physician. The marriage was an unhappy one. Earle drank, openly played around with numerous women, and largely ignored his pretty young wife. Rheta soon became neurotically depressed. She had married Earle against her parents’ wishes, which undoubtedly only acerbated her misery. There are few things more painful than an act of defiance that backfires on you. She was bored, melancholy, and obsessively worried about her health.

Earle Wynekoop


This dreary household limped along quietly until the night of November 21, 1933, when the police were informed that Dr. Wynekoop had discovered Rheta’s body in her basement surgery. Young Mrs. Wynekoop was lying face-down on an operating table, mostly unclothed, but wrapped in a heavy blanket. It was estimated she had been dead for at least six hours. She had been shot through the back. A gun, which, it was later established, belonged to the doctor, was on a table by Rheta’s head. There were also chloroform burns on her face. One of the numerous oddities about her death was the fact that, although the gun had been fired three times, the young woman had been shot only once. The extra bullets were never found.

The angle of the gunshot, as well as the burns, ruled out suicide. Dr. Wynekoop suggested to police that Rheta had been murdered by a burglar in search of the drugs and money kept in the house. The chief investigator was dubious of this theory. It looked to him that the young woman had been killed by someone she knew. This line of thought led him straight to the playboy husband, Earle. He was told that Rheta’s husband was on his way to the Grand Canyon for a photography job, but he was also aware of gossip that Earle had been seen in Chicago the day before his wife’s death.

Alice Wynekoop


Earle was soon arrested (he was in the company of his latest mistress, who had no idea he was even married.) He strongly denied having anything to do with Rheta’s death, proposing that she had been killed by a stray lunatic. He went on to say that his late wife had once tried to poison the entire family, and was quite insane. He also boasted of having over fifty girlfriends, and, all in all, made it quite clear why any woman married to him would be deeply depressed indeed.

Meanwhile, his mother was being subjected to even more rigorous questioning. The frail sixty-three year old was interrogated for a near-continuous twenty-four hours, culminating in a confession to Rheta’s murder. It is not clear how her statement was obtained. Some accounts say she only admitted guilt after being told her son had confessed. Others state she was simply worn out. In any case, the story she told was this: On the morning of the 21st, Rheta complained of a pain in her side, so Dr. Wynekoop brought her to the basement surgery for an examination. At the young woman’s request, the doctor gave her chloroform, which unexpectedly killed her. When Alice realized Rheta was dead, in an effort to “ease the situation best to all,” she decided to simulate a murder by shooting the corpse.

The sort of thing that could happen to anybody.

The coroner’s jury didn’t buy it. The inquest had ruled Rheta died of a gunshot wound, not chloroform. The police believed Dr. Wynekoop had, for whatever reason, deliberately killed her daughter-in-law, with her son acting as accessory. It turned out that two days before Rheta’s death, Dr. Wynekoop and her son had a secret meeting. It is unknown what was discussed at this rendezvous, but it was evidently something quite extraordinary. Afterwards, the doctor wrote Earle a hysterical, semi-coherent note telling “Precious” how she longed to hear his voice again and have a “real talk” but “I cannot.” And why, the police wondered, did Dr. Wynekoop wait for hours after Rheta’s death before telling anyone about it? And what to make of the fact that only two weeks before her death, Rheta’s life had been insured on a double-indemnity policy for $5,000—with Dr. Wynekoop paying the premiums? Did this extremely devoted mother try to help her son by ridding him of an unwanted wife?

Earle told police that his mother’s confession was “a pack of lies” given only because she thought he was in danger of being charged with the crime. He made an effort to convince police he was his wife’s murderer. He also, for reasons known best to himself, admitted that his mother disliked Rheta and saw her as a millstone around his neck, but their religion forbade divorce.

Dr. Wynekoop told her Precious to just shut up already.

It was soon established that Earle had been many miles away when his wife died, and he was released from custody. Dr. Wynekoop retracted her confession, declaring that it had been forced out of her by the police. She said that after hours of merciless questioning, she felt she wouldn’t live long enough to stand trial, so she confessed to just get everyone to leave her in peace.

Alice Wynekoop stood trial in January 1934. It was, even for the long and peculiar history of Chicago crime, a remarkable spectacle. This elderly, ailing woman, who had long been known in her community as a physician, social worker, teacher, community leader, and advocate for women’s rights was very plausibly accused of the bizarre, cold-blooded murder of her own daughter-in-law. It all produced in the spectators an uncomfortable mixture of horror and titillation.

One of the most interesting witnesses was Enid Hennessey, a friend and patient of Alice who was boarding at the Wynekoop home. She said the day Rheta died seemed perfectly normal. A little past six in the evening, she returned home from her teaching job to find the doctor fixing dinner. Rheta was not there, and Alice expressed some mild concern about her long absence. After going out to do some errands, Miss Hennessey settled in the Wynekoop library with Alice, where they chatted about literature and other unremarkable topics.

It is a strange picture indeed she painted. If Dr. Wynekoop had anything to do with her daughter-in-law’s death, she knew perfectly well a corpse was lying in her basement. Yet, if Miss Hennessey can be believed, her friend the doctor was the picture of placidity.

One senses the Wynekoop household was a highly unusual one even before Rheta’s death.

Hennessey complained of indigestion, which sent the doctor down to her basement office to get some medicine. And there she found Rheta. When Alice finally “discovered” the body, her first call was not to the police. She phoned her daughter Catherine, who was also a doctor. “Something terrible has happened here,” Alice told her. “It is Rheta…She has been shot.”

Catherine testified that when she reached the family home, her mother was shaken and obviously unwell. It was only then that the undertaker and police were called.

After a good deal of squabbling between the attorneys, Dr. Wynekoop’s confession, describing Rheta’s accidental death from chloroform, was allowed into evidence. It was the contention of the State that this statement was a complete lie. According to the prosecution, the doctor, strapped for money, heartlessly killed the young woman for the insurance. The defense countered by claiming the confession had been given under duress, that Dr. Wynekoop had no need for such blood money, and that the defendant had a general reputation as “peaceful and law-abiding.” They also introduced witnesses who testified to the doctor’s fondness and concern for her son’s unhappy wife.

When Dr. Alice herself took the stand, she told a story far different from her confession. She described November 21 as a perfectly calm, normal day in her household. At about three in the afternoon, she went for a walk and completed some minor tasks. When she arrived home, there was no sign of Rheta, but saw no reason for worry. She then began to fix dinner. The rest of her narrative was essentially the same that had been told by Enid Hennessy and Catherine Wynekoop. She continued to maintain that “drug fiends” must have broken into her basement surgery and killed Rheta.

The trial came to its end without any definitive evidence proving who had killed the troubled young woman. Still, the jury evidently found little trouble coming up with a verdict of “guilty.” Alice Wynekoop was sentenced to twenty-five years in the state penitentiary. After fifteen years, the then seventy-nine year old woman was granted parole. She died two years later.

The Wynekoop murder is one of those irritatingly confusing cases with many lingering uncertainties, brought about largely by the fact that little told by any of the witnesses can be trusted. Although the most obvious solution to the mystery is that Alice Wynekoop did indeed kill her daughter-in-law, this still does not explain what would inspire this hitherto exemplary woman to commit such a deed. Was she a remorseless sociopath in disguise? Or did she believe that Earle killed his wife? Contemporaries all agree that she idolized this son to a rather unhealthy degree. Did this extreme mother love inspire her to “take the rap” for him? Considering that Earle’s alibi was judged to be unimpeachable, we are left wondering: If Dr. Wynekoop didn’t kill poor Rheta, who did, and why?

Friday, August 18, 2017

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Maurice Boulanger's Cats of August!





Watch out for the Little People!

Watch out for the Lizard Man!

The Night of the Murdered Poets.

The Hell of being an O.J. juror.

In which John Quincy Adams tells us how to view the eclipse.

In which we take an eating tour of 19th century Lower East Side.

The CIA's recipe for invisible ink.

The many afterlives of Rasputin.

The earliest known winery.

Folklore from 19th century Kirkwall.

Parliament needs cats!

Washington, D.C. needs demon cats!

A brief history of London's Petit Ranelagh.

The capture of an 18th century highwayman.

More from the field of acoustic archaeology.

Adventurous cats.

Defending Fairy Forts.

Life in Bleeding Heart Yard.

A haunted house in Newport.

A famous 1860 railway disaster.

Escape coffins and premature burials.

An odd story involving a DIY submarine and a missing journalist.

Why people didn't smile in old photographs.

Georgian pamphleteering.

19th century cancer treatments.

JMW Turner and "Old Dad."

A 15th century witch trial.  As usual, it ended badly.

How to avoid getting struck by lightning.  In case you don't feel like reading the article, it took them this long to figure the magic secret was:  "Get out of the rain!"

The Burton Gang of Los Angeles.

Competitive lawnmower racing, anyone?

17th century beauty tips.

Some handy tips if you ever marry a mermaid.

How a wedding ring became lost in space.

The moon is full of surprises.

An ode to an Indian cricket player.

Cricket in the Georgian era.

A Civil War era card game ends very badly.

Marie Antoinette's white hair.

The origins of Kotex.

The Buddha and the butterfly.

14th century mobsters.

A ghost riot in Cornwall.

And, finally, a black cat in London's East End has died.  Godspeed, Mr. Pussy.

And that's it for this week!  Tune in on Monday, when we'll visit a "solved," but still puzzling, Chicago murder.  In the meantime, here's an old favorite of mine.



Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day




Let's talk about the time it rained knitting needles over Kentucky, shall we? The "Decatur Weekly Republican," on April 13, 1876, copied an item from the "Harrodsburg Gazette":
The Richmond "Register" refers to the strange phenomenon which occurred at Harrodsburg about 1845 [other stories say March 1856], of the shower of knitting needles. This strange occurrence was neither second to the Bath county carnipluvia in its marvelousness, nor in the satisfactory character of the testimony to the fact. There are a number of persons of the most reliable character yet living who cheerfully bear testimony to the fact.

Mr. F.W. Curry upon whose father's lot the shower fell, thus refers to the fact:

The shower occurred during the night. The needles fell over an area of an acre or more of what was used for a hemp factory lot. There was a storm of rain and wind during the night--in the morning the needles of all sizes, some of them whole and some broken, were lying on and sticking in the ground all over the lot. There were two or three pounds of them. Numbers of them were picked up by the women and used. No explanation of the phenomenon could be given. It was conjectured in the midst of the poverty of all explanation that these needles had fallen from the clouds. No one had missed any needles. They were found as related. The most substantial citizens can testify to the fact. No explanation has ever been given. We forebore mentioning it on account of its marvelousness. We are glad our neighbor took the initiatory. Mrs. John Thomas has some of the needles to this day.

According to other news stories, in 1903 a number of "prominent and well known citizens of that day" made a notarized statement attesting to the truth of the event.

As a knitter myself, I would find a rain of needles now and then to be very convenient. An occasional yarn shower would be appreciated, as well.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Witch of the "Recovery"




17th century sea voyages were no pleasure cruises: Potentially deadly storms, bad food, cramped unsanitary berths, seasickness, learning that one of your fellow passengers is a witch trying to bring down the ship...

...Wait,what?

On November 29, 1691, the magazine "Athenian Mercury" published an account of the hexed voyage of the "Recovery," which sailed to Virginia from England in October 1674. It probably ranks as the most Fortean Atlantic crossing on record.

The anonymous author of the article (who may have been Samuel Wesley, father of the famed Methodist John Wesley,) informs us that from the moment the "Recovery" set sail, the ship suffered an unusually long streak of problems. The weather was bad, anchors were lost, and virtually any part of the ship that could break, did--often more than once. The captain grumbled, "What was mended one Day would the next Day be in pieces." When the "Recovery" stopped in Portugal to pick up a load of wine, a series of disasters led to the entire shipment being lost. The captain noted, "The People on Shoar," told the "Recovery" "we had a Witch aboard."

Life on the "Recovery" only got worse from there. In separate accidents, two sailors fell overboard and drowned. A passenger toppled over the rail, and also perished in the sea. Nearly everyone on board fell ill, leaving the crew "very Weak and Lame." By the time the ship's carpenter announced the only possible explanation for the "Recovery's" "Miserable Trouble"--namely that the vessel was bewitched--everyone was more than ready to believe him. The only question was, who was responsible for the hex?

One of the passengers, an elderly woman named Elizabeth Masters, was unanimously pointed to as the culprit. She was often seen alone, "with her hands up, as if she were at Prayers." This was seen as highly suspicious. When the tack broke while she was the only person on the deck, it was seen as incontrovertible evidence of her guilt. Masters was immediately hustled down to steerage and put in chains. Unfortunately, this only made matters worse. A black cat began stalking the ship, viciously scratching anyone it met and generally freaking everyone out. It was soon followed by a whole pack of demonic felines. When attacked with swords, they would vanish into thin air. Large shaggy black dogs were seen prowling the deck. A band of ghostly sailors would come and go. Despite her imprisonment below deck, Masters herself would make spectral appearances to the ship's passengers, urging them to join her alliance with Satan. Worst of all, the ship's supply of water and beer mysteriously disappeared. Marks of "the Claws of some Creature, as a Cat or the like," were found on the empty casks.

One of the passengers, William Rennols, revealed that Masters' spirit visited him in the night, informing him that his mother back in England was a witch, as well. He found this charge credible, as Mom "was a very Lewd Liver and kept a brothel house in Dog and Bitch Yard, London, and would often in the night go abroad, and come home very bloody."

Another passenger, Mary Leare, complained that thanks to Masters, she was "Dreadfully pinched at the small of her back, hips, and buttocks." Leare decided that the only thing to do was to smear some of the witch's blood on her wounds. This idea attained instant popularity among her shipmates, with the result that they were all making regular visits to "prick" Masters whenever they felt unwell.

Oddly, the "Mercury" ends its tale on this cliffhanger note. We do not know further details of the "Recovery's" Satanic excursion, or what became of Elizabeth Masters. This lack of resolution, coupled with the fact that we have no other record of this haunted voyage, has led some to suspect that the entire story is fiction. However, there are other documented instances of ship's passengers being accused of witchcraft. In 1654, the "Charity" sailed from England to the Province of Maryland. The voyage was plagued by stormy weather and a ship that "daily grew more Leaky." The "Rumour amongst the Seamen" was that "the malevolence of witches" was responsible for their troubles, and "her own deportment and discourse" caused them to identify a passenger named Mary Lee as the culprit. She was seized by the crew, and after they discovered "some Signall or Marke of a witch upon her," the poor woman was unceremoniously hanged. No one was ever held responsible for this lynching at sea.

Four years later, the ship "Sarah Artch" made the same trip from England to Maryland. During the crossing, a passenger named Elizabeth Richardson was accused of sorcery and quickly hanged. (A side note: the chief complainant against Richardson was one John Washington, the great-grandfather of the first American President.) In this case, the ship's owner, Edward Prescott, was arrested and tried for the "extra-jurisdictional" execution. The governor of Maryland had no particular objection to hanging witches, but he wanted it done on dry land and on his watch. At his trial, Prescott successfully argued that he had no responsibility for Richardson's murder. It was his crew who insisted on hanging the woman, and if he had tried to stop them, they would have mutinied. He was acquitted.

In 1658, another luckless emigrant, Katherine Grady, was blamed for the unusually bad weather plaguing her ship, with the result that she was soon swinging from the yardarm. When the ship arrived in Virginia, the captain, a man named Bennett, was summoned to appear before the General Court at Jamestown to answer for Grady's death. Unfortunately, there is no surviving record of how the case was resolved, but odds are that Bennett also got away with murder.

These cases show that as bizarre as the story of the "Recovery" may be, it is quite likely that at least the essentials of the tale are correct, meaning that a helpless old woman named Elizabeth Masters probably came to a very brutal end.

In short, if you were an elderly woman taking a 17th century sea voyage, you had a very particular reason to pray for an uneventful trip.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is sponsored by another of our Cats From the Past!



Meet Edgar.  In 1987, he was an orphaned kitten we took in because, well, if we didn't nobody else would.

You couldn't find anyone with a more angelic personality.  Eddie was sweet-natured, affectionate, (he would follow me around the house like a puppy,) playful, friendly to everyone he met, and extraordinarily well-behaved.  Even non-cat-people were won over by his charm.

Even Pongo loved him.  And I can tell you, Pongo did not think highly of very many souls.



Eddie died of liver disease at the age of 14.  I still keep his ashes on my dresser, next to this little obsidian cat I bought in his memory.




What the hell is the Heysham Hogback?

A variation on the old joke about Grant:  Who the hell is buried under Columbus' tomb?

Watch out for those phantom coaches!

Watch out for those cursed chairs!

A day in the life of a public executioner.

The busy life of an 18th century naturalist.

The truth about the female writer and the skinny-dipping president.

Summer in the City.  The city of early 19th century London, that is.

Vintage portraits of hop pickers.

The Apostrophe Superhero.

A ghostly white cat.

Bread as a weapon of war.

Studio photos of 1860s Russians.

Captain Steadman and the goblin.

A trip to the moon, 1892.

A Victorian cat dictionary.

Because I know all of you have been dying to know how long a garden slug can live in a human stomach.

Robert E. Lee's connection to a long-unsolved German murder case.

There's enough in this post to keep a room of historians arguing for weeks.

The folklore of wedding cakes.

17th century rural poor and high fashion.

A cat and his chair.

On the dangers of bulldozing a fairy thorn.

On the link between French werewolves and glass factories.

The private contractor and the prison hulk.

Fanny Burney's mastectomy.

Infanticide in the Regency era.

The latest addition to the "pushing back human history" file.

Bloody freaking hell, they're still trying to peddle the Maybrick Diary.

The surprisingly controversial question of whether there are human remains in the wreckage of the "Titanic."

The mummy of the "Polar Princess."

Preserving the most infamous pink suit in American history.

When there is such a thing as too many cats.

The 18th century Countess and the goblin.

The mythical origins of the Greeks.

The remarkable octopus.

A Georgian aristocratic marriage.

The spoils of war: a patchwork quilt.

All you need to know about Herne the Hunter.

The hazards of being a Victorian governess.

Two lost children and a prophetic dream.

The execution of "Swedish Anna."

An interactive map of London, circa A.D. 50.

Stolen trousers and murder.

When Victorians danced on the dead.

Two very strange deaths in Arkansas.

A tragedy in Kentucky.

Victorian dog funerals.

A helpful poltergeist.

This week in Russian Weird looks at the world's spookiest radio station.

Not to mention the time x-rays helped foil Soviet censorship.

After you read those links, let's go shopping, Comrade!  (Pro tip: Skip the frozen meat.)

Thus ends yet another Link Dump.  See you all on Monday, when we'll look at High Strangeness on the High Seas. In the meantime, here's Mr. Glen Campbell.


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day






The "Boston Post's" latest "Famous Cat of New England" features a teetotaler kitten and his buddy the alligator:
Tabsy Owl's name is a whole story in itself. Being the official club cat of St. Joseph's Total Abstinence Society in the West End, the "Tabsy" was bestowed on him as an abbreviation for the total abstinence part of it. The Owl came because of his propensities for staying up late with the boys at the club. While there's a late stayer there Tabsy Owl is right beside him.

Then there's Sport, the baby alligator, that Frank Gaffney, member of the club and also one of the star men on the Post sports staff, brought up from Jacksonville, Fla., with him about a month ago. Tabsy Owl has adopted Sport. Tenderly as ever mother cat watched over her kittens Tabsy Owl watches over Sport. The scaly hide of the little chap is carefully washed off every day by the pink tongue of Tabsy Owl, and the little fellow loves it.

The cat and the alligator occupy the centre of the big table when the boys gather around each night. Tabsy Owl stands for a good deal of rough-housing with the boys. He can box back and knows all the strangle holds and defences and feints of the game. He obeys all rules. But let one of them try to tweak the tail of Sport and Tabsy Owl rushes at him.
~January 8, 1921

Monday, August 7, 2017

Legends of Theodosia




Even if Theodosia Burr had not been the daughter of one of America's most prominent--and notorious--political figures, she would still have been worthy of note. This only surviving child of Aaron Burr and Theodosia Prevost was born on June 21, 1783. Her parents doted on the girl, convinced that she was someone exceptional. Of course, all decent parents feel the same about their children, but young Theodosia was exceptional. From an early age, she showed unusual intelligence and a desire to learn--qualities that her father, who believed women should be as well-educated as men, vigorously encouraged. When Theodosia was still a child, Burr wrote, "I yet hope, by her, to convince the world what neither sex appear to believe--that women have souls!" Theodosia grew up to be not just remarkably erudite, but precociously cultured and sophisticated. The beautiful girl showed a talent for music, languages (she was fluent in French, German, and Greek,) horsemanship, and dancing, and displayed a quick wit and great social charm. A visitor praised her as "elegant without ostentation, and learned without pedantry." Unsurprisingly, Theodosia developed into a confident, strong-willed woman who believed she was more than a match for any man.

Gilbert Stuart portrait of Theodosia Burr, 1794


Burr adored his jewel of a daughter, and she fully returned this worship, describing her father as "so superior, so elevated above all other men." After Theodosia's mother died in 1794, the profound bond between father and daughter became even closer. The girl became "the woman of the house," managing the household and acting as hostess with an efficiency and polish that would have done credit to someone twice her age. Theodosia was not just Aaron Burr's child, she was his closest companion and most trusted adviser. "For what else, for whom else, do I live?" he once wrote her.

Aaron Burr


Considering how unusually close Theodosia was to her father, it is a bit surprising that another man managed to win her affections. In February 1801, when she was only seventeen, Theodosia married a wealthy South Carolinian named Joseph Alston, and the young couple went to live on his extensive rice plantation. Alston entered politics, with such success that by 1812 he was South Carolina's governor. Although Burr gave his blessing to the marriage, he was naturally distressed at the thought of losing Theodosia's company.

Joseph Alston


Although Theodosia and Alston remained devoted to each other, the marriage cannot be called an entirely happy one. Theodosia was not cut out for the dull routine of an isolated plantation. She was deeply homesick for the urban excitement of New York, and missed Burr as much as he yearned for her. In 1802, Theodosia gave birth to a son, whom she named after her beloved father. Unfortunately, the birth had been a very difficult one. It left Theodosia with a prolapsed uterus that caused lingering pain and likely made physical relations with her husband impossible. Her health never recovered.

Meanwhile, without Theodosia at his side, Burr seemed utterly lost. In 1804 came his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton (a duel sparked, according to some rumors, by Hamilton's unpleasant insinuations about the nature of Burr's relationship with his daughter.) After that came the series of curious and still somewhat murky intrigues that in 1807 led to Burr being charged with treason.

Through all these vicissitudes, Theodosia provided Burr with unwavering moral support, and remained with him throughout his trial and acquittal. Despite the fact that her father was now a free man, she was deeply saddened to realize they both were now social outcasts. "The world begins to cool terribly around me," she wrote. Her Alston in-laws had turned against her, and it was said that even her husband regretted being linked by marriage with the most hated man in the country, and resented his wife's steadfast loyalty to Burr. Theodosia's health continued to deteriorate. She suffered from what she described as "hysteric fits," hallucinations, and severe depression.

In June 1812, Theodosia suffered a further blow when her son suddenly died of malaria. "There is no more joy for me," she wrote. "The world is blank. I have lost my boy." The lonely, grieving woman longed for her father more than ever. On December 30, 1812, she boarded the pilot ship "Patriot," bound for New York. She and Burr had not seen each other for four years, and were greatly looking forward to their reunion.

Instead, no one ever saw Theodosia again. A few days after the "Patriot" set sail, it completely and mysteriously disappeared, presumably somewhere off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. No confirmed traces of the ship or its passengers and crew were ever found.

No one knows for certain what became of Theodosia Burr Alston, but not for lack of trying. The vanishing of such a notable and romantic figure--so gifted in some ways, so cursed in others--gave birth to an unusually rich panoply of legends and rumors centered around her "true fate."

The most popular theory is that the "Patriot" was captured by pirates, with everyone on board the ship being murdered. (A variation of this scenario is that the ship fell victim to Carolina "wreckers" who lured the "Patriot" onto the shoals.) Nineteenth-century newspapers were crammed full of "deathbed confessions" from various elderly ex-pirates describing how they had forced Theodosia Burr--who was invariably described as showing heroic courage and stoicism--to "walk the plank." Possible confirmation for this tale was given in 1910 by one J.A. Elliott, who revealed a family tradition that in early 1813, one of his ancestors found the body of a beautiful and expensively-dressed woman washed ashore at Cape Charles. Elliott stated the woman was buried on his uncle's farm.

A variation of the pirate legend describes how one of the buccaneers, infatuated with Theodosia's beauty and grace, kidnapped Mrs. Alston and imprisoned her on a remote island. However, the valiant woman preferred death to the living hell of being a pirate's chattel. She managed to escape her captors long enough to drown herself in the sea. Her ghost, it is said, still haunts the beach where she perished. More prosaically, some have suggested that the "Patriot" became accidentally involved in naval action related to the War of 1812. Could the vessel have been mistaken for a military ship and sunk by the British? As I mentioned on an earlier post, there is even a surprisingly persistent belief that Theodosia was the mysterious "Female Stranger" buried in Alexandria, Virginia. Or was she living in Texas as the wife of an Indian? As a pirate's mistress in Bermuda? There is also the narrative that a Karankawa Indian chief possessed a gold locket engraved with the name "Theodosia." According to this bit of folklore, the chief had once saved a woman from a shipwreck. She told him she was the daughter of "a great chief of the white men," who was unfairly forced to leave his country. Before dying, she presented him with this locket.

And then there is what has become known as the "Nag's Head Portrait." In 1869, a doctor named William Gaskins Pool was called in to treat an elderly woman named Polly Manncaring, who lived in a dilapidated old shack near Nag's Head, North Carolina. While Dr. Pool was there, he was struck by an oil painting he saw on the wall. It was of an elegant dark-haired woman in her twenties. The beautiful image seemed oddly out-of-place in the dark, dismal hut. The old woman told him that around the time of the War of 1812, her husband had been among the "wreckers" who boarded a pilot boat that was beached near Kitty Hawk. The ship appeared to have been abandoned and cast adrift. There was no sign of blood or other marks of violence. The cabin was strewn with expensive clothing belonging to a woman, as well as other valuable articles, including this portrait. As payment for the doctor's services, the woman gave him this picture. Pool was convinced that it was a portrait of Theodosia Burr, and that the boat discovered by the "wreckers" was the lost "Patriot." Some members of the Burr and Alston families agreed with him. However, Joseph Alston's sister-in-law--the only person to inspect the painting who had known the living Theodosia--saw no resemblance.

The "Nag's Head Portrait"


In contrast to all these efforts to weave colorful dramas around the fate of Theodosia, the person who knew and loved her best had a starkly simple explanation. Aaron Burr was certain his beloved "Theo" had drowned when a fierce storm that was known to be in the area sunk her boat, and she now rested somewhere on the bottom of the sea. "Were she alive," he said, "all the prisons in the world could not keep her from her father."

Burr was most likely correct. Scholars who have studied the path of this storm believe that the "Patriot" would have unwittingly sailed straight into it. Archaeologist James Mitchie concluded that the little pilot boat "faced near hurricane-force winds" that it could not possibly have survived. Mitchie believed it sank sometime between 6 p.m. on January 2 and 8 a.m. on the 3rd.

Theodosia's last moments were certainly tragic, but probably not very mysterious.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Weekend Link Dump


This week's Link Dump is sponsored by another of our Cats From the Past!

Meet Archie.  He was my very first cat.  He was a stray--probably about a year or so old--rescued by a neighbor of ours.  When I was two years old, she gave him to me as a Christmas present.  You might say he and I grew up together.  I was a solitary child who preferred the company of animals to people (some things never change,) and I thought of Archie as my best friend.  He was an extremely intelligent guy, who always retained an air of a tough "street cat."  He was also the only cat I've ever met who loved to be bathed.  In the summer, to combat fleas, I'd give him a bath and then blow-dry him (which he also greatly enjoyed.)



He also liked sitting in kitchen cupboards.


Archie passed away at the age of about 20, after a very brief illness.  It was the first time anyone I loved died.



Where the hell is Alexander the Great's father buried?  Now we know!

What the hell is ball lightning?  Someone thinks he knows!

Who the hell was the mystery skeleton of Centralia?

How the hell old is the Sphinx?

Watch out for those haunted railroads!

Watch out for those bogus ghosts!

Watch out for the Angeles National Forest!

Watch out for those exploding zombie caterpillars!

A 300 year old ramble through London.

So, this author missed his deadline by 30 years.

Escaping the guillotine.

Shorter version:  Kids, take your smartphone and smash it with a brick.

A look at Paris in the summer of 1820.

The suicide of a party girl.

An electrifying optician.

Summer in the City, early 19th century style.

One woman's late 19th century travel journal.

It can be argued that "Little Red Riding Hood" is not for kids.

Tutankhamen's futon. 

Photos of a county fair, 1900.

The Fortean side of cholera.

Georgian era sea bathing.

Early 19th century historical re-enactments.

The busy life of Caroline of Brunswick.

In which Abigail Adams disses Alexander Hamilton.  (As a side note, I had an American history teacher who, one day, announced that he would tell us everything we need to know about Hamilton.  He opened a biography of AH, read the opening line, "Alexander Hamilton was a bastard," and slammed the book shut.  That was a fun class.)

The Age of the Bluestocking.

The man who drove blindfolded.

"I was a cat for the CIA."

Grace Darling, Victorian heroine.

The missing miner and his murdered widow.

Those magic words, "cheese knife lobotomy."  That should give you enough information to know if you want to read on or not.

In related news, this week's Advice From Thomas Morris tells how to make your very own rupture!

A murder in Regency Britain.

Ghosts of the Capitol.

Some new theories about the Mayans.

The Baldwinsville murder mystery.

Spiritualists and the insane asylums.

Ancient Romans as archaeologists.

This crow taught herself to fly, which I'll bet is more than you can say.

Staten Island cows go wild!

The "Cook's Tourists" of WWI.

A prolix funerary inscription.

The "Fasting Girl."

And that's that for this week. See you on Monday, when we'll look at one of American history's most romantic disappearances. In the meantime, here's more summer music:

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day




Here I am, with all your thieving ghost dog needs. From the "Washington Times," July 30, 1908:
Pittsburg, July 30--Policemen, armed with repeating rifles, are patrolling Lincoln avenue nightly, seeking to get a shot at a supernatural dog which talks good English, then disappears in the vapors of the night.

Many petty robberies have been committed in the neighborhood of Lincoln avenue recently.

Detectives Charles Aymer, Arthur Ehrenfield, and Lieut. Charles G. Shields were detailed to catch the thieves. Sunday morning at dawn the three men descended a ravine back of the home of the Sisters of Divine Providence.

A big black figure followed them. They moved across a bridge and the black phantom waddled on behind. The three men say it was a large Newfoundland dog. The policemen halted; the dog stopped. Suddenly the brute spoke in deep tones, "Good morning." The men quailed in fear. "Good morning," said the dog.

The dog disappeared in thin, greenish vapors. The men made a search of the ravine, but no dog tracks could be found. They were laughed at when they told their story.
It just occurred to me that this is the second talking ghost dog I've featured on my blog, which reassures me that I must be doing something right.