"...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, December 11, 2017

James Graham, Prince of Quacks

James Graham, by John Kay


Hail! Wond'rous Combination!!!—but chief—THOU FIRE ELECTRIC
—Celestial Renovator!—Thou Life of all Things—Hail!
—In Majesty and Mystery combin'd!
Enthron'd—unveil'd—in this tremendous—this most genial Temple!
To Britain's Daughters—to Britannia's Sons—bear the best Blessing, HEALTH!
Stretch forth thy Hand that bears the triple Branch—
Medicinal!—which binds up broken Hearts!—illumes the Soul,
And flings the Rose of Health o'er the pale Cheek of Sickness,
Far—far from those who take them, and from these sacred Walls removing Pain and Death."
-From James Graham's "The Guardian Goddess of Health," 1780



A great many people are obsessed with good health. A great many people are obsessed with good sex. It was James Graham's peculiar genius to be able to fashion an appeal to both those interests. A combination of Dr. Ruth and Dr. Oz, with a considerable amount of P.T. Barnum thrown in, "Dr." Graham is still fondly remembered as one of history's great quacks.

Graham was born into a middle-class Edinburgh family in 1745. In his youth, he studied medicine at Edinburgh University, but never earned a degree. That failed to stop him from adopting the title of "Doctor," and practicing medicine in his own individualistic fashion.

When Graham was 25, he moved to Yorkshire, where he married a Mary Pickering and set himself up in a medical practice. He soon ventured out to the American colonies, where he presented himself as a specialist in eye and ear diseases. In Philadelphia, he studied Benjamin Franklin's recent experiments with electricity, an experience that would be a great influence on Graham's work. He returned to England in 1775, and began to offer the novel treatments that would make him famous.

Like all wise quacks, Graham sought to attract wealthy hypochondriacs. He treated their "nervous disorders" with what he called his "three great medicines" of "electrical ether," "nervous ethereal balsam" and "imperial pills," milk baths, "magnetic thrones" and mild electric shocks. It was all quite barmy, but essentially benign, and his confident charm convinced his patients that it all did them a great deal of good. His skill with what would later be called "placebo effect" gained him a large and highly appreciative clientele among the neurotic well-to-do.

In 1779, he built his Templum Aesculapium Sacrum (popularly known as the Temple of Health) in London's Strand. He also published a series of pamphlets advertising his wonderful cures. His Temple was something of a Georgian medical carnival ride: His "electrical throne" sat in a place of honor among his various odd medical apparatus, while the Temple as a whole was filled with florid paintings, statues, stained glass, and perfumed air, while a glass harmonica played therapeutic music for the benefit of Graham's patients. Graham proclaimed that his Temple aimed to "prevent barrenness" and propagate "a much more strong, beautiful, active, healthy, wise, and virtuous race of human beings, than the present puny, insignificant, foolish, peevish, vicious, and nonsensical race of Christians, who quarrel, fight, bite, devour, and cut one another's throats about they know not what."

"Public Advertiser," November 11, 1780


In 1780, he published his "Lecture on the generation, increase and improvement of the human species," a highly popular sex manual. As part of his favorite theme of good sex through good health, his Temple featured beautiful, robust, nearly-nude young women posing as "Goddesses of Health." (Legend has it that one of these models was a young courtesan named Emma Lyon, who would later gain fame as Lord Nelson's Lady Emma Hamilton.)

Graham's most famous "cure" was his "celestial bed." This large sleeping couch, lined with magnets and connected to his electrical machines, was covered with a flowered dome crowned with a pair of live turtle doves. Couples lay in bed to the tune of musical "celestial sounds" and surrounded by pipes that released "ethereal gases." At the head of the bed was a clockwork tableau in honor of Hymen, the god of marriage. It all frankly sounds like something that would distract from passion, rather than promote it, but the bed was promised to cure impotence and sterility--at fifty pounds a night.

Graham's siren song of vigorous health and lots of sex brought visitors to the Temple in droves. Even skeptics like Horace Walpole, who called the Graham's edifice "the most impudent puppet-show of imposition I ever saw"--eagerly paid a crown apiece to tour the facility. (The scantily-clad Health Goddesses probably didn't hurt attendance.) Graham became such a celebrity that in 1780, he received the dubious tribute of a hit play satirizing him. "The Genius of Nonsense," ran for some 22 performances at the Haymarket Theater. Another satire mocking the "doctor," "Il Convito Amoroso," may even have been written by Graham himself.

Like every great charlatan, he realized there was no such thing as bad publicity.

Unfortunately, as popular as the Temple of Health may have been, it was extremely expensive to maintain. Although Graham himself lived frugally, even ascetically, the splendors he presented to the public soon bankrupted him. In 1782, all his property was seized by creditors, and the following year he was compelled to place ads in the newspaper promising to pay 20s to the pound on all his debts. However, his lectures on "sexual health" continued to be successful, no doubt at least in part because his "rosy, athletic, and truly gigantic goddesses of Health and of Hymen" played a prominent role in his talks. (His "high priestesses" gave separate lectures for the benefit of the ladies.)

Graham's frank lectures on sex got him banned in Edinburgh in 1783. He responded with yet another pamphlet, "An appeal to the public, containing the full account of the ignorant, illegal, and impotent proceedings of the contemptible magistrates of Edinburgh." This admittedly tactless rejoinder got him arrested. While awaiting trial, he issued "A full circumstantial and most candid state of Dr. Graham's case, giving an account of proceedings, persecutions, and imprisonments, more cruel and more shocking to the laws of both God and man than any of those on record of the Portuguese Inquisition." He also lectured to his fellow prisoners, with additional entertainment provided by "a mellow bottle and a flowing bowl." That August, he was sentenced to a fine of twenty pounds sterling, which was paid by his Edinburgh admirers.

After this escapade, he continued to lecture throughout England and Scotland without any more major problems. His increasing interest in religion inspired him to downplay the emphasis on sex that had made him famous--and notorious. In 1789, he told an audience that although his younger days had been regrettably wild, he had now achieved "the mild serenity of an evening natural, and of an autumn intellectual sun." His deepening involvement with Christianity led him to vigorously debate leading Unitarians, and be began to call himself "The Servant of the Lord Oh, Wonderful Love." (O.W.L. for short.) He also became an equally ardent disciple of vegetarianism.

In 1790, he published his "Short treatise on the all-cleansing, all-healing, and all-invigorating qualities of the simple earth," where he extolled the healing powers of his new favorite fad, the earth-bath. He would treat audiences to a demonstration of this cure-all, gradually shedding his clothes onstage while men with shovels covered him in dirt up to his chin. It was, one audience member wrote, "quite enough to call up the chaste blushes of the modest ladies." Graham argued that food was unnecessary--all one needed was to absorb nutrients through bathing in mud.

Sadly, Graham's eccentricities deepened in his later years, to the point where he could arguably have been called quite mad. (He also became an opium addict, which undoubtedly had something to do with his mental deterioration.) He claimed--on no evidence whatsoever--to have offered his medical advice to the prince of Wales. It was said that he would often "rush into the streets and strip himself to clothe the first beggar he met." Graham's family periodically had to confine him in his rooms.

Graham published his final pamphlet in 1793, where he claimed that from December 31, 1792, to January 15, 1793, he ate nothing and drank only cold water, keeping himself alive through massages with his "nervous aethereal balsam." Despite the fact that he boasted that he had discovered the secret to living to the age of 150, the doctor died suddenly from a "burst blood vessel" on his forty-ninth birthday, June 23, 1794.

Although Graham is remembered as a snake-oil salesman, he was much less harmless than the average charlatan. The magnetic and electrical devices he championed are concepts that many modern-day medical experts are now exploring as serious treatments for some ailments. He decried war and slavery, and championed religious tolerance and education for women. He was a generous, charitable man who treated his parents--described by early biographer John Kay as "old-fashioned Presbyterian Whigs of the strictest kind"--with notable kindness and attention. Although some of his ideas were decidedly odd--he called masturbation "a deadly paralytic stroke"--his advocacy of spartan eating, emphasis on fresh air and cold bathing, and celebration of the benefits of a healthy, happy sex life ensured that all in all, he did his patients some good, and probably very little harm. This is a boast few other medical practitioners of his day--reputable or otherwise--could make.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Weekend Link Dump


Throughout the month of December, the Link Dump will proudly be sponsored by the League of Christmas Cats!







What the hell are these wooden structures?

Watch out for those underwater ghosts!

Some facts about Madame Tussaud.

Christmas dinner in Victorian England.

Dangerous driving in Georgian Norfolk.

12 libraries share their oldest treasures.

The history of the "cocked hat."

Russia's oldest city.  Which really is quite freaking old.

If your nickname is "Mad Jack," you're always welcome at this blog.

Yes, on top of everything else, the Nazis were goddamned weird.

A forgotten Arctic heroine.

A ghost and a misplaced grave.

How a Welsh family was rewarded for helping to make Henry Tudor king.

Dickens' dark side.  I've always thought Dickens was little but dark, to be honest.

Christmas folklore involving animals.

A Georgian "scene of low dissipation."

A Vienna poltergeist.

Glass half-full moment: was this sailor extremely lucky, or extremely unlucky?

This ghostly blog post gets extra credit points for the title.

The murders at Frank Lloyd Wright's home.

The Great Sphinx has been uncovered in California.   And it's looking for an agent.

A timeless Scottish town.

A selection of Regency slang.

Napoleonic exiles in America.

A female Indian warrior.

The family of Martin Luther.

The notorious London fog of 1952.

The first great American costume ball.

The Ladies Stone of Denmark.

Magic and medieval monks.

Romantic advice from the 12th century.

Vegan fairies.

Scottish orangeries.

Yet another Victorian urban legend.

A winter without Mr. Pussy.

Why you really wouldn't want to stand behind this French performer.

Is this where Julius Caesar landed in Britain?

The famous murder of Mary Rogers.

The execution of two bride-stealers.

Magical Folk and Munes.

A real-life "Evangeline."

And that's it for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll meet one of history's great quacks.  In the meantime, here's Bobby Fuller.  He was such a promising talent; it's a pity that--if the most common rumors are correct--he fought the Mob, and the Mob won.




Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day



I suppose the Zebrina can best be described as "Mary Celeste Redux." This account of her mysteriously ill-fated crew appeared in the "Sydney Morning Herald" for April 12, 1941:

According to recent cables, a 200 ton ship crossed the Irish Sea without a crew, and with her engines running, berthed herself in an inlet on the West Coast of Britain,with only an inch to spare from dangerous rocks. The vessel had caught fire and had been abandoned by the crew when the flames gained control. This strange happening recalls one of the most puzzling sea mysteries of the last war--a mystery as baffling as the more famous case of the Marie Celeste. 
This was the strange affair of the British schooner, Zebrina. which, on October 17, 1917, was found drifting off Cherbourg (France), undamaged in any way, with all sails set, but without a soul on board, although the tables were prepared for a meal for the crew. No trace of the ship's complement was ever found and their fate remains unsolved.

The Zebrina was of sturdy oak. built at Whitstable in 1873. Rigged as a three masted fore-and-aft schooner, the vessel was 109 feet long, with a registered tonnage of 185 tons gross, and capable of carrying about 300 tons of cargo. In 1917 she was one of the many vessels engaged in transporting coal from Falmouth to the French port of St. Brieuc, south of Cherbourg. At the time the Zebrina was under the command of Captain Archibald Martin, the other members of the crew being four British seamen,W. H. Beck, W. F. D. Bourke, M. Faus, and G. Steward.

On the afternoon of October 15. 1917, the vessel, fully loaded with coal, left Falmouth and set sail for St. Brieuc a voyage which she usually covered in about thirty hours. On this occasion, however, the Zebrina never reached her destination. Nothing was heard of her until early on the morning of October 17, when the French authorities found her derelict in the English Channel outside Cherbourg.

To the amazement of the naval party, the Zebrina was found to be in perfect condition, but every member of her crew was missing. She swung idly about with all her sails set and flapping. The sea was flat-calm, and in the cabin was a table set for a meal that had been partly prepared. The galley fire was still burning.

But no trace of the missing crew could be discovered. The men's clothing and other personal belongings were still on board; the ship's papers and log book had not been removed; and the only lifeboat that the vessel carried still swung in its davits. Completely mystified by their discovery, the French authorities had the vessel towed to Cherbourg, where, after the coal had been removed, the schooner was closely examined by marine surveyors. She bore not the slightest damage anywhere, and was not even leaky!

Although at first it was presumed that the missing men might have fallen victims to a German U-boat, there was no evidence to support this theory. If the vessel had been stopped by a U-boat she would have been blown up, as so many other ships engaged in transporting coal to France had been destroyed when stopped by enemy submarines. Other evidence against the U-boat theory was the fact that the Zebrina's papers and log book were still on board. The German submarine commanders were under strict orders to take back the papers of the ships they destroyed, so that there would be indisputable evidence as to their activities: when they boarded a vessel or signalled the captain to come off, the ship's papers were the first things they demanded.

A more logical theory is that the Zebrina was caught in the severe gale which swept through the English Channel on the night of October 16. It is believed that the five men may have been all on deck, attempting to keep the heavily-laden vessel's head to the wind, when a giant wave broke on board and swept them all overside into eternity.

After the war a memorial was erected to the crew at Trinity House, London.

According to most accounts, the ship was found aground on the French coast, not adrift, although that detail does nothing to help explain what happened to the crew.  The Zebrina still ranks as one of the 20th century's most well-known mysteries of the sea.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Ghost of the "Asp"




This tale of a shipboard haunting appeared in various newspapers during 1868. This particular reprinting came from the "Hampshire Advertiser," February 1:
To the Editor of the 'Pembroke Dock and Tenly Gazette. 
"Sir,—I shall feel obliged by your inserting in your next impression an account of a 'Ghost' which has been seen on board H.M. Ship Asp 1850 to 1857. 
''The account is in the handwriting of Captain Alldridge, R.N., who was in command of that ship at the time above named. 
"The MSS. was sent to me by a gentleman residing at Exeter, whose name I will give to any one wishing to know it, with a request that I should investigate the matter, and supply him with any information I might be able to gain in connexion with this most mysterious tale. 
"I know of no better way of attaining this end, than by publishing the story in your paper, at the same time soliciting information, in person or by letter, from any one who may happen to be conversant with the facts, and able to throw any light upon the subject. 
"I am, Sir, your obedient servant, 
"C. Douglas. 
Vicarage, Pembroke, Jan. 21, 1868."
"My dear Sir,—I herewith readily comply with your request as far as I am able, respecting the unaccountable apparition on board my ship, call it ghost or what you will, still it is a fact that I relate; and, much as I was and am a sceptic in ghost stories, I must confess myself staggered and completely at a loss to account for what actually did occur, and never could be accounted for. 
"Having retired from active service for some years, I am unable to recollect dates, but will, as far as I can remember, give them. 
"'In the year 1850, the Asp was given by the Admiralty as a surveying vessel; and, on taking possession, the superintendent of the dockyard jokingly remarked, 'Do you know, sir, your ship is said to be haunted? And I don't know if you will be able to get the dockyard men to work on her.' I, of course, smiled, and said, 'Ah, never mind, sir, I don't care for ghosts, and daresay I shall get her all to rights fast enough.' I determined in my own mind not to mention a syllable about a ghost to any one; but strange to say, before the shipwrights had been at work a week, they begged me to give the vessel up and have nothing more to do with her; that she was haunted, and nothing but ill luck would attend her, and such like. However, the vessel left the dockyard, and arrived safely in the River Dee, where her labours were to commence. 
"'After my day's work was over, I generally read a book after tea, or one of my officers would read aloud to me (he is now master of the Majicienne), and on such occasions he would meet with continued interruption from some strange noises in the after (or ladies') cabin, into which he could see from where he sat in my cabin—our general mess-place. The noise would be such as that made by a drunken person staggering or falling against things in the cabin, creating a great disturbance; indeed, so much so, that it was impossible for him to proceed in his reading. He would, therefore, stop and call out, 'Don't make a noise there, steward' (thinking it was the steward rummaging about); and, on the noise ceasing, he would continue his reading, until again and again interrupted in a similar way, when receiving no answer to his question 'What are you doing, steward, making such a d----d noise?' he would get up, take the candle, go into the cabin, and come back saying, 'Well, I suppose it is the ghost, for there is nothing there,' and on again reading, and the same occurring, he would say to me,  'Now, do you hear that; is there not some person there?' I would answer, 'Yes, I am positive there is. It must be some one drunk who has got down into the cabin, wanting, perhaps, to speak to me;' and so convinced was I, that I would get up, and with Mr. Macfarlane, go into and search the cabin, but to no purpose. All this happened repeatedly night after night. Sometimes the noise would be like that of the opening of the drawers or lockers of the seats, moving decanters, tumblers on the racks, or other articles; in fact, as though everything in the cabin was moved or disturbed. All this time the ship was at anchor more than a mile from the shore; and here I must remark, that there was no communication whatever with the fore part of the ship and the cabin, access being by the companion ladder directly between the two cabins, the door of each being at the foot of the ladder; and from one cabin you could see distinctly into the other, so that no person could escape from either up the ladder without being seen. 
"On one occasion, I and the master (Macfarlane) been on shore to drink tea at a friend's house near Chester, the vessel being lashed to the lower [word illegible] near Connah's Quay, and on returning about ten o'clock, just as I was descending the companion ladder I thought I heard some person rush from the fore cabin, it being quite dark at the time. I turned to Mr. Macfarlane, who was behind me at the time, and whispered to him, 'Stand still a moment, I think I have caught the ghost,' and then descended into my cabin, took down my sword from over the bed where it always hung, placed it drawn in his hand, and said, 'Now, Macfarlane, allow no one to pass you; if any one attempts to escape, cut him down; I will stand the consequences.' I then returned to the cabin, struck a light, and searched everywhere, but nothing could I find, or to account for what I had heard; but I will say, truly, I never felt more certain of anything in my life than I did of finding a man there; and I had to repeat the old saying so often repeated between us, 'Oh, it's only the ghost again!' I have often, when lying in my bed at night, heard noises as though my drawers were being opened and shut, the top of the washing stand raised and shut down carelessly, the jalousies of the opposite bed-places opened and shut, &c.; and of an evening, when sitting in my cabin, I have often heard as it were a percussion cap snap close to the back of my head. I have, also, very, very often (and I say it with reverence and Godly fear) been sensible of the presence of something invisible about me, and could have put my hand as it were on it, or the spot where it was, so convinced was I. And all this occurred without my feeling the least alarmed, or caring a bit about it, more than that I could not understand it, or account for what I felt or heard. 
"On one occasion, the ship being at anchor in Mostyn Roads, I was awoke by the quarter-master coming to call me, and asking me to come on deck, for that the look-out man had rushed down on the lower deck, saying that there was the figure of a female standing on the paddle-box, pointing with her finger up to heaven. I felt angry, and told him to send the look-out man up on deck again, and keep him there till daylight; but, on attempting to carry my orders into execution, the man went into violent convulsions, and the result was, I had to get on deck myself, and attend to him, and remain till day broke, but nothing was seen by me. 
"This apparition was often seen afterwards, and as precisely as first described pointing upwards with her finger; and strangely enough, as she was last seen by an utter stranger to the whole affair, she disappeared, as will be hereafter described. 
"On another occasion, when lying in the Haverfordwest river, opposite to Lawrenny, on a Sunday afternoon—the crew all being on shore, except my steward and two hands who pulled me on shore to church: during my absence the steward was going down into my cabin when he was spoken to by an unseen voice and fell down instantly with fright, and I found his appearance so altered on my coining on board that I hardly knew him, and extracted the above tale from him, at the same time begging to be allowed his discharge, and to be landed as soon as possible, to which I felt obliged to consent, as he could not be persuaded to remain on board through the night. The story of the ship being haunted seemed to get known on shore, and the clergyman of Lawrenny (Mr. Phillips) called on me one day, and begged to be allowed to question the crew, which he accordingly did, and seemed to view the matter in a serious light, and expressed his belief that there was a troubled spirit lingering on board the ship, wanting to make known the murder of a beautiful girl, which occurred when the vessel was carrying passengers, and which was as follows :— 
"The Asp had been engaged as a mail packet between Port Patrick. Scotland, and Donaghadee, Ireland, and on running one of her trips, after the passengers were all supposed to have landed, the stewardess went down into the ladies' cabin, where to her surprise and horror, there lay a beautiful young woman, with her throat cut, in one of the sleeping berths. quite dead, but how she came by her death none could tell, and it was never known. Of course the circumstance gave rise to much mystery and talk, and the vessel was at once removed from the station by the authorities, the matter was hushed up, and she had been laid aside and never been used again till handed over to us for surveying service. 
"During the successive years that I commanded the Asp I lost several of my men, some of whom ran on being refused their discharge, and others I felt I must let go, who declared that they saw a transparent figure of a female at night (all giving the same account) pointing with the finger up to the skies. I had for a year endeavoured to ridicule the whole affair, and each account as often told me (for I was often put to inconvenience in my duties by the loss of hands); indeed, I believe neither steward or boy would have gone down into the cabin after dark when the officers were out of the ship if you had paid them for it. I myself was awoke one night by a hand (to all sensation) being placed on my leg outside the bed-clothes. I laid for a moment to satisfy myself that such was the case, and then gribbed at it and pulled my bell, which was immediately over my head, for the quarter-master to come down with his lantern, but there was nothing! This has occurred to me several times, and precisely as related. But on another occasion a hand was distinctly placed on my forehead, and I believe if ever man's hair stood on end mine did at that moment, and I sprang out of bed—but there was no sound, nothing! Until then I had never felt the least fear or care about the ghost, or whatever it could be, but on the contrary it had been a sort of amusement to me in the night time as I lay in bed to listen to the unaccountable noises in my cabin, and when I felt there was some person there (probably playing tricks), to suddenly pull my bell for the look-out man, and listen most attentively if I could hear the least sound of a footstep or attempt to escape, but there was none. I could hear the look-out man walk from his post to my cabin door, when I merely asked some questions as to the wind or weather. It may be fancied that there were rats or mice in the ship, but I can confidently declare there were neither, and that during the 15 years that I commanded the vessel, I never could obtain the slightest clue to the cause of the noises or any other matter above described, nor have I the slightest conception what it may have been. 
"At length, the vessel requiring repairs, was ordered alongside the dockyard of Pembroke; and the first night, the sentry stationed near the ship, declared that he saw a female mount the paddle-box, holding up her hands towards the heavens, and step on shore. She came along the path towards him, when he brought his musket to the charge with 'Who goes there?' She then walked through his musket, which he dropped, and ran to the guard house. The next sentry describes the same thing, and he immediately fired off his musket to alarm the guard. The third sentry, placed near the ruins of Pater old church, says he saw the same figure, which mounted the top of a grave in the old churchyard, and stood pointing up to heaven, until she gradually vanished out of sight. The sergeant of the guard came with rank and file to learn the tale of the frightened sentries along the dockyard wall, who would not remain at their posts unless the posts were doubled, which, I believe, they were, and as may be seen in the report of the guards for that night. 

"Singular enough, since that night, the ghost has never been seen or heard on board the Asp, nor sounds or noises as before; and it seems as if the spirit or whatever it was departed from her that night inscrutable to all. 
"This ends my tale; and, much as I know one gets laughed at for telling ghost stories or believing in them, I can only say I give them with all truth as far as I know and believe, and you are welcome to make what use you please of the same. With kind regards, believe me, yours truly, 
"(Signed) G. M. Alldridge. 
"P.S.—The Asp was of 117 tons, officers and men numbered 16, commissioned in 1850 by me. Previously employed as a mail packet under the post office, between Port Patrick (Scotland) and Donaghadee (Ireland), but in what years I cannot say. The ghost left the vessel in 1857 or 1858, when the present Admiral Ramsay was superintendent of Pembroke Dockyard, and the story of the ghost on board the Asp is well known to the whole neighbourhood." 
[We insert this story as we find it in the local paper, and shall be glad if any of our readers can give any further information about it, or certify as to the truth of it.—Ed.]




Friday, December 1, 2017

Weekend Link Dump



Throughout the month of December, the WLD will proudly be sponsored by the League of Christmas Cats!









Who the hell was the first person to reach the North Pole?

Watch out for those shoes on the table!

Old advertisements of the Jewish East End.

Benvenuto Cellini and the Devil.

Honoring the first space cat.

A baptism of blood and flames.

An early "armchair traveler."

Victorian Welsh swearing.

A colorful mistress of Napoleon's.

The serial killer who brought down Eliot Ness.

Aztec death whistles and other unusual recordings.

A Napoleonic sex farce in which I learn of "calf falsies for men."  Never mind, just read.

A look at the "Cunning Folk."

The truth about "post-mortem" photographs.

Legends of the Blue Mountain.

A mysterious Latvian forest.

A mysterious Kenyan city.

A mysterious underwater castle.

An 18th century bullfight.

The rise and fall of a bonesetter.

The difficult life of George II's mistress.

The even more difficult life of Charlotte Williams.

The bear, the goat, and the cowboy.

The Georgian Bonassus.

The strange case of a woman hospitalized for over 30 years.

"Greek fire" at the Parthenon.

England's cat and dog massacre.

Stoning mermaids.

How to clean Victorian dresses.

Margaret Pole, one of the many people who had the misfortune to get on Henry VIII's extensive bad side.

A remarkable surgery-at-sea.

Some ancient health tips.

This week in Russian Weird:  Their bears are armed and on the loose.

That's it for this week! See you on Monday, when we'll talk haunted ships. In the meantime, here's a bit of Renaissance music.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Camille Pissarro, "Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich"

This "true ghost" story--a classic example of what are known as "crisis apparitions"--was told by Dr. Margaret Vivian in the "London Evening News" of December 23, 1954:

Many years ago when I was a medical student Mr. X., an old friend, would call occasionally at the college to take me out to lunch. One day a letter from him asked me to meet him off the 1:30 train the next day at a small country station nearby. Later, a telegram was handed to me telling me Mr. X. had been killed in a street accident. It was unsigned and I thought it might be a hoax. Next morning I cycled to the station, leaned my bicycle against the bridge across the lines and leaned on the parapet. As the 1:30 train pulled up at the platform, I watched anxiously to see who alighted. There were three passengers, two men and a girl, and to my relief I saw that one was my old friend, in his familiar raincoat and bowler hat rather far back on his head. I shouted to him and he looked up smiling, waved his hat and hurried out of sight towards the station exit. I ran to meet him there. The two other passengers emerged, by not Mr. X. I went on to the platform but there was no sign of him.

I spoke to the ticket collector. He said only two passengers had gotten off the train, a 'gent' and a young lady.

"But the other gentleman--wearing a bowler hat," I insisted. "I saw him from the bridge!"

"I never seen but two," he replied, and he showed me the two tickets he had taken from them.

I rode back to college, fearing now the telegram must be genuine, and I learned later that Mr. X. had been knocked down by a hansom cat, and had been taken unconscious to hospital, where he died as the result of a fractured skull.

I never discovered who sent me the telegram.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Bridge King Gets a Bad Hand




Even if you're not a fan of detective novels, you are surely familiar with the "locked-room murder," that classic example of the genre. However, you might not necessarily know that this staple of fiction was inspired by one notorious true crime.

The difference is, the real-life killing had no detective neatly wrapping things up in the last chapter.

The first part of Joseph Bowne Elwell's life was decidedly ordinary, even dull. He was born in New Jersey in 1876. After graduating from Andover, he worked as an insurance agent and a hardware salesman. He married Helen Derby in 1904.

However, Elwell only found real success because he was one of the fortunate few who found a way of turning a beloved hobby into a career. Elwell had a passion for the fashionable new card game called "Bridge." He also discovered that he was an excellent player. He became a teacher of the game. Then, Elwell came out with a number of highly successful handbooks (although his name was on the cover, they were actually written by his wife.) He parlayed his love of gambling into profitable side careers speculating on Wall Street and owning a string of race horses. Before long, he was not only the world's leading Bridge expert, he was an exceedingly wealthy man. He owned fine homes in New York, Palm Beach, and Saratoga, and moved in high society.

Elwell in "fancy dress."


Unfortunately for his marriage, Elwell's favorite "socializing" was with attractive women, and in a manner that went far beyond just playing cards. His womanizing became so open and frequent that his wife finally had enough, and left him for her own house and her own life. Neither party was devastated by the separation.

Elwell's life chugged along very pleasantly until June 10, 1920. That night, he dined at New York's Ritz with a small group of friends: Mr. and Mrs. Walter Lewisohn, and Mrs. Lewisohn's sister, Viola Kraus. Viola was in a celebratory mood: On that very morning, her divorce from Victor von Schlegell had been finalized. In fact, Victor and his fiancee, Emily Anderson, were dining at the next table, in a similarly merry mood. If you believe the word of everyone involved, this was one of the most convivial divorces on record.

Viola Kraus


After dining, the Elwell party moved on to see a show at the New Amsterdam. This lasted until about 2 a.m., when the group broke up and left for their own homes. The Bridge King was in notably high spirits that night. And why not? He had money, fame, and the inestimable good fortune of being able to monetize activities he loved. His play was his work. He must have seen himself as blessed.

Elwell took a cab to his home on West 70th Street, stopping at a newsstand to buy a copy of the "Morning Telegraph." Despite his late night out, he did not immediately go to bed. Phone records would show that Viola Kraus phoned him soon after his return home. She later claimed it was over some unspecified triviality. Perhaps that was the case. At 4:30, Elwell phoned his stables in Far Rockaway, but got no answer. About an hour and a half later, he phoned a number in Garden City, New Jersey. We know no details about this call, other than that it was practically the last thing Joseph Elwell ever did.

Elwell's apartment building


At 6:15, the milkman left his usual delivery at Elwell's door. He noticed nothing amiss. An hour later, the mailman left letters in the vestibule. He brought the bottles of milk in, as well.

All was quiet at the Elwell residence until shortly after 8, when his housekeeper, Marie Larsen, unlocked the front door and let herself in as usual. When she came in, she glanced into a small room near the front door, and got the shock of her life when she saw a bald, pot-bellied, pajama-clad stranger sitting in a chair.

It took her a few seconds to realize that this intruder was, in fact, her employer. Without the wig, corset, and dentures he always wore when he faced the world, he was almost unrecognizable. (It later emerged that Elwell had no less than forty wigs hidden away in his home.) He had a prominent bullet hole in his forehead. Elwell was still alive, although unconscious. There was nothing anyone could do for him. He died shortly after being brought to the hospital.

The "how" of the murder proved to be the one explicable part of this crime. Elwell had been found with his recently-delivered mail by his chair. He had obviously come out of his bedroom sometime after 7:30 and collected his letters. He was reading one of them--an innocuous message from his Kentucky racing stable's trainer--when someone shot him with a .45 automatic that had been manufactured for the U.S. Army. The weapon was never found.

The killer had been only a couple of feet from his or her victim, and, judging from the trajectory of the bullet, had fired in an upwards direction, either from the hip or from a crouching position. From the fact that Elwell allowed his visitor to see "the real him," so to speak, it can be assumed that he/she was someone he knew very well, but that this person was not among his numerous lady friends. Elwell also trusted this person well enough to casually glance through his mail in their presence, feeling no hint of danger. He probably literally never saw his death coming.

One would think these factors would considerably narrow down the number of people who could have shot Elwell, but the police seem to have been completely stymied from the start. Not only could no one think of any plausible reason for anyone to kill Elwell, no one could come up with any plausible suspect. Although he must have been shot just a short time before Mrs. Larson's arrival, no one on his very busy street saw anyone else enter or leave the house. All of Elwell's possessions--including $400 in cash--were untouched, suggesting that robbery was not a motive. Further complicating the puzzle is the fact that the housekeeper found the front doors locked. The rear and basement doors were also secured. The two keys to the house were in the possession of only Mrs. Larson and Elwell himself. The victim almost had to have willingly let his murderer into the residence.

The investigation took an initially hopeful twist when police discovered that after Mrs. Larson discovered the wounded Elwell, she removed women's lingerie from her employer's closet and hid them in the basement. (When confronted with her deception, the housekeeper muttered feebly that "I thought it would not be nice for them to be found there.") She denied knowing who was in the habit of wearing this intimate apparel. However--again putting discretion over veracity--Mrs. Larson knew perfectly well who owned the lingerie: Viola Kraus. It later emerged that after doing her little bit of crime-scene tampering, the housekeeper phoned Kraus to tell her of the shooting and assure her that the lingerie had been removed. This caused police to give another look at both Kraus and her newly-divorced husband, Victor von Schlegel, but unfortunately for investigators, both their alibis remained irritatingly watertight.

In the near-century since the murder, it cannot be said that the armchair detectives have made any further progress in solving the mystery. It has been suggested that Elwell actually shot himself, and Mrs. Larson--who obviously wished to spare her boss any posthumous scandal--disposed of the gun, but that theory smacks too much of desperate "reaching" to be taken seriously.

In his 1988 book about the case, "The Slaying of Joseph Bowne Elwell," Jonathan Goodman made what was, to date, the most exhaustive effort to explain the murder. He seized upon the fact that two years after Elwell died, Walter Lewisohn became violently insane and was institutionalized. What if, Goodman argued, Lewisohn, suffering from incipient madness, became irrationally jealous of Elwell over some joint female friend, and either killed his imagined rival or had him killed?



Goodman's theory is well-argued, but too dependent on a chain of "What-ifs" to be ultimately convincing. On the other hand, there was the sweet simplicity of the conjecture offered by the lead investigator into the Elwell murder, Inspector Arthur Carey. He proposed that some common thief secretly followed the mailman into the vestibule in the hope of executing some quick robbery. He found the inner door ajar, and made his way inside. When he unexpectedly came across Elwell, the burglar shot the man in a sudden panic and ran for it, shutting the door behind him.

That scenario is just tiresomely mundane enough to possibly be the truth.