"...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, July 6, 2015

The Horror in Room 1046

In Kansas City, Missouri, on the afternoon of January 2, 1935, a man walked into the Hotel President  and asked for a room several floors up. He carried no luggage. He signed the register as "Roland T. Owen," of Los Angeles, and paid for one day's stay. He was described as a tall, "husky" young man with a cauliflower ear and a large scar on the side of his head. He was given room 1046.

On the way to his room, Owen told the bellboy, Randolph Propst, that he had originally thought to check into the Muehlebach Hotel, but was put off by the high price of $5 a night. When they reached 1046, Owen took a comb, brush, and toothpaste out of his coat pocket and placed them in the bathroom. Then, the pair went back out in the hall, where the bellboy locked the door. He gave Owen the key, after which the new guest left the hotel and the bellboy returned to his usual duties.

Later that day, a maid went to clean 1046. Owen was inside the room. He allowed her in, telling her to leave the door unlocked, as he was shortly expecting a friend. She noticed that the shades were tightly drawn, with only one small lamp to provide illumination. She later told police that Owen seemed nervous, even afraid. While she cleaned up, Owen put on his coat and left, reminding the maid not to lock the door.

Around 4 p.m., the maid returned to 1046 with fresh towels. The door was still unlocked, and the room still eerily dim. Owen was lying on the bed, fully dressed. She saw a note on the desk that read, "Don, I will be back in fifteen minutes. Wait."

The next we know of Owen's movements came at about 10:30 the next morning, when the maid came to clean his room. She unlocked the door with a passkey (something she could only do if the door had been locked from the outside.) When she entered, she was a bit unnerved to see Owen sitting silently in a chair, staring into the darkness. This awkward moment was broken by the ringing of the phone. Owen answered it. After listening for a moment, he said, "No, Don, I don't want to eat. I am not hungry. I just had breakfast." After he hung up, for some reason he began interrogating the maid about the President Hotel and her duties there. He repeated his complaint about the high rates of the Muehlebach.

The maid finished tidying the room, took the used towels, and left, no doubt happy to leave this strange guest.

That afternoon, she again went to 1046 with clean towels. Outside the door, she heard two men talking. She knocked, and explained why she was there. An unfamiliar voice responded gruffly that they didn't need any towels. The maid shrugged to herself and left.

Later that day, a Jean Owen (no relation to Roland) registered at the President, and was given room 1048. She did not have a peaceful night. She was continually bothered by the loud sounds of at least male and female voices arguing violently in the adjoining room. Mrs. Owen later heard a scuffle and a "gasping sound" which at the time she assumed was snoring. She debated calling the desk clerk, but unfortunately decided against it.

Charles Blocher, the graveyard shift elevator operator at the hotel, also noticed unusual activity that night. There was what he assumed was a particularly noisy party in room 1055. Some time after midnight, he took a woman to the 10th floor. She was looking for room 1026. He had seen her around the President numerous times--she was, as he put it discreetly, "a woman who frequents the hotel with different men in different rooms."

A few minutes later, he was signaled to return to the 10th floor. The woman was concerned because the man who had arranged to meet her there was nowhere to be found. Being unable to help her, Blocher went back downstairs. About half an hour later, the woman summoned him again to take her down to the lobby. About an hour later, she returned to the elevator with a man. Blocher took them to the 9th floor. Around 4 a.m. the woman left the hotel, followed about fifteen minutes later by the man. This couple was never identified, and it is unknown what, if anything, they had to do with Owen and room 1046.

At about 11 p.m. that same night, a city worker named Robert Lane was driving on a downtown street when he saw a man running down the sidewalk. He was puzzled to see that on this winter night, the stranger was wearing only pants and an undershirt.

The man waved Lane down, thinking he was a taxi driver. When he saw his mistake, he apologized and asked if Lane could take him someplace where he could get a cab. Lane agreed, commenting, "You look as if you've been in it bad." The man nodded and growled "I'll kill that [expletive discreetly deleted in newspaper reports] tomorrow." Lane noticed his passenger had a wound on his arm.

When they reached their destination, the man thanked Lane, then exited the car and hailed a cab. Lane drove off, having no idea that he had just played a minor role in one of his city's weirdest murder mysteries.

Around 7 a.m. the next morning, the President's telephone operator noticed that the phone in room 1046 was off the hook. After three hours had passed without anyone placing the phone in its cradle, she sent Randolph Propst to tell whoever was there to hang up. The bellboy found the door locked, with a "Don't disturb" sign out. When he knocked, after a moment he heard a voice tell him to come in. When he tried the door, he found it was still locked. He knocked again, only to have the voice tell him to turn on the lights. After a couple more minutes of fruitless knocking, Propst finally yelled, "Put the phone back on the hook!" and left, shaking his head at what he assumed was their crazy drunken guest.

An hour and a half later, the operator saw the phone was still unhooked. She sent another bellboy, Harold Pike, up to deal with the problem. Pike found 1046 still locked. He used a passkey to open the door--showing that it had again been locked from the outside. In the dimness, he was able to make out that Owen was lying on the bed naked. The telephone stand had been knocked down, and the phone was on the ground. The bellboy put the stand upright and replaced the phone.

Like Propst, he assumed their guest was merely drunk. He left without bothering to check Owen's condition more closely.

Shortly before 11 a.m., another telephone operator noticed that the phone in 1046 was again off the hook. Once again, Propst was sent up to the room. He found the "Don't disturb" sign still on the door. After his knocks got no response, he opened the door with his passkey and walked inside.

The bellboy found something far worse than mere intoxication. Owen, still naked, was crouched on the floor, holding his bloody head in his hands. When Propst turned on the light, he saw more blood on the walls and in the bathroom. The frightened bellboy rushed out and told the assistant manager, who summoned police.

The officers found that about six or seven hours earlier, someone had done dreadful things to Roland Owen. He had been tied up and repeatedly stabbed. His skull was fractured from several savage blows. His neck was bruised, suggesting he had been strangled. Blood was everywhere. This small hotel room had been turned into a torture chamber. When questioned about what had happened, the semiconscious Owen only muttered, "I fell against the bathtub." A search of the room found more strangeness. There was not a single stitch of clothing anywhere in 1046. The room's standard soap, shampoo, and towels were also gone. All they found was a label from a necktie, an unsmoked cigarette, four bloody fingerprints on a lampshade, and a hairpin. There was also no sign of the cords which must have been used to bind Owen and the weapon that stabbed him. A hotel employee reported that several hours before Owen was found, he had seen a man and a woman leave the President hurriedly. There was no doubt that, in the words of one of the detectives, "someone else is mixed up in this."

While Owen was being rushed to the hospital, he fell into a coma. He died later that night.

Meanwhile, investigators were quickly realizing that this was no ordinary murder. Los Angeles police found no record of any Roland T. Owen, which led to the assumption that the victim had checked in using a pseudonym. An anonymous woman phoned police the night of Owen's death, saying that she thought the dead man lived in Clinton, Missouri.

"Owen's" body was taken to a funeral home, where it was publicly displayed in the hope that someone could recognize him. Among the visitors was Robert Lane, who identified him as the peculiar man he had seen on the night of January 3. Several bartenders testified seeing a man matching "Owen's" description in the company of two women. Police also discovered that the night before "Owen" registered at the President Hotel, a man matching his description had briefly stayed at the Muehlebach, giving his name as "Eugene K. Scott" of Los Angeles. Unsurprisingly, no trace of anyone by that name could be found, either. Earlier, Owen/Scott had stayed at yet another Kansas City hotel, the St. Regis, in the company of a man who was never identified.

They were having no more luck with tracing the "Don" "Owen" had talked to during his stay at the President. Was he the man who was there with the prostitute? Was he the strange voice who had told the maid not to bother bringing in fresh towels? Was "Don" the man "Owen" had told Lane he wanted to kill? Was "Don" the man who had been at the St. Regis with him? All excellent questions, which were fated never to be answered.

Nine days after "Owen" died, a wrestling promoter named Tony Bernardi identified the dead man as someone who had visited him several weeks earlier to sign up for wrestling matches. Bernardi said the man gave his name as "Cecil Werner."

While all of this established that "Roland Owen" was a very peculiar man, none of it was the slightest help in discovering his real identity, let alone the name of his killer. The woman's hairpin found in his room, plus the angry male and female voices Jean Owen had heard led to talk that the murder stemmed from a "love triangle," but that theory remained mere speculation. Police were becoming resigned to writing off his death as one of the unsolved mysteries, and by the beginning of March, preparations were made to bury the John Doe in an unmarked grave.

However, before "Owen" could be brought to the city's Potter's Field, the head of the funeral home in charge of the body received an anonymous phone call. The man asked that the burial be delayed until money could be sent to cover the costs of a decent internment. The caller claimed that "Roland T. Owen" was the dead man's real name, and that Owen had been engaged to the caller's sister. The funeral director said that the mysterious benefactor told him that Owen "just got into a jam." He added that the police "are on the wrong track."

Shortly afterward, the cash arrived via special delivery mail--again anonymously--and "Owen" was finally buried in Memorial Park Cemetery. No one attended the funeral other than a handful of detectives. More money was sent with equal mysteriousness to a local florist to pay for a bouquet of roses for the grave. It was accompanied by a card to be placed with the flowers. It read, "Love forever--Louise."

The Owen case drifted into obscurity until late 1936, when a woman named Eleanor Ogletree learned of an account of the murder given in the magazine "American Weekly." She thought the description given of "Owen" matched that of her missing brother Artemus. The Ogletrees had not seen him since he left his home in Birmingham, Alabama in April 1934 to "see the country." The last his mother Ruby had heard from him were three brief, typewritten letters. The first of these notes arrived in the spring of 1935--several months after "Owen" died. Mrs. Ogletree later said she was suspicious of these letters from the start, as her son did not know how to type. The last letter said he was "sailing for Europe." Several months after the last letter, she received a phone call from a man calling himself "Jordan. "Jordan" said that Artemus had saved his life in Egypt, and that her son had married a wealthy Cairo woman. When Mrs. Ogletree was shown a photo of "Owen," she immediately recognized the dead man as her missing son. He was only 17 when he died.

The dead man had finally been identified. Justice for his brutal death, however, remained hopelessly elusive. This is one of those irritating unsolved murders that is nothing but a bunch of questions left in a hopelessly tangled mess. Why was Artemus Ogletree using multiple false names? What was he doing in Kansas City? Who killed him and why? Who was "Louise?" Who was "Jordan?" Who sent the money to pay for Ogletree's funeral? Who really wrote those letters to Ruby Ogletree? What in God's name happened in room 1046?

It's almost certain we will never know. The investigation into Ogletree's death was briefly reopened in 1937, after detectives noted similarities between his murder and the slaying of a young man in New York, but this also went nowhere. The case has remained in cold obscurity ever since, except for one strange incident about ten years ago. This postscript to the story was related in 2012 by John Horner, a librarian in the Kansas City Public Library who has done extensive research into the Ogletree mystery. One day in 2003 or 2004, someone from out-of-state phoned the library to ask about the case. This caller--who did not give his or her name--said that they had recently gone through the belongings of someone who had recently died. Among these belongings was a box containing old newspaper clippings about the murder. This caller mentioned that this box also contained "something" which had been mentioned in the newspaper reports. Horner's caller would not say what this "something" was.

It seems only fitting that a case so mysterious throughout should have an equally baffling last act.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Newspaper Clipping(s) of the Independence Day

As you old-timers around this blog may remember, last year I did a roundup of some cautionary tales about the many hazards of Fourth of July celebrations.  For this year's holiday, I thought I'd take a look at the lighter side of its history.  Browsing through the old newspaper advertisements for local July 4th events, I can't help but feel our ancestors got a lot more fun out of the holiday than we usually do today.

That is, of course, when they weren't blowing themselves to smithereens with DIY fireworks.

Arizola [AZ] Oasis, June 24, 1904

I find it particularly endearing how communities all boasted how their celebration would be bigger and better than anyone else's.  "The Eagle is going to scream his loudest!  We will have the best ever!"  And, no, I do not have an explanation how the "Wondrously Rich Chinese Pageant" fits in with the American Independence Day, but I'm sure it was a grand show regardless.

"Coconino Sun," July 1 1899

Who could resist a hose contest?

"Mohave County Miner," July 3, 1897

Greased poles and greased pigs.  Not to mention the Beautiful Queen De Cacti!

"New Anaconda Standard," June 30, 1891

I have a sneaking suspicion that "A Famous Orator of National Note Booked for the Occasion" means, "Our original speaker bailed out at the last minute, and we're still scrambling to find a replacement."

"St. Paul Globe," July 5, 1880

"Six Experienced Tubbists!"

"Hayti [MO] Herald," June 21, 1917

The oldest married couple!  50 yards Fat Men's Race!  Running Board Jump!  The Hayti Hussar Band in person!  Rain or shine!

"Hood River Glacier," June 28, 1917
A wartime celebration, with half the proceeds going to the Red Cross, and half to the mess hall of the boys of the Twelfth Company, so they can be kept away from those beans.

"Iron County Record," June 18, 1915

I wonder which of those young ladies was the proud winner of the "Goddess of Liberty" contest?

"Mansfield Mirror," June 22, 1922

Come on!  Let's go!  Something doing every minute!

"Mansfield Mirror," June 23, 1921

It's you we're talking to!

"Mohave County Miner," June 3, 1911

It's hard to top the lure of this one:  Come to Kingston or stay dead!

"Oroville Gazette," June 20, 1919

Nearly a century ago, they already felt the need to advertise a "real old fashioned" celebration.  A Wild West Show, a parade of soldiers and Boy Scouts, and continuous dancing.  Who could ask for more?

"St. Martinsville Weekly," June 12, 1915
Under the auspices of the Woodmen of the World!

"Wibaux Pioneer," June 19, 1909

I have no idea what a Bowery Dance is, but I want to attend one.  With a Cowboy of Montana.

"Yakima Herald," July 1, 1908

Out-of-towners cordially invited!

All right, I admit this one could get a bit too lively.

It's also interesting to see how long the history of the "Safe and Sane" campaign has been.


"Daily Missolian," July 4, 1914

"Cambridge Sentinel," June 25, 1910

"Kenna Record," June 27, 1913

"Seattle Times," July 4, 1914

So, there's our little look at Fourth of July in the days of old.  Enjoy the holiday, my fellow Americans.  Let's see if we can get a tug-of-war game and a Goddess of Liberty contest going.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

The cats wish all Americans a happy Independence Day!.

On to some 4th of July Dread, Fright, and Boo! links:

Why the hell didn't Napoleon escape to America?

Where the hell is this genetically modified jellyfish sheep?

How the hell did these babies wind up in a church cellar?

How the hell did this Chinese sword wind up in Georgia?

Watch out for the Unwritten Law!

Watch out for those jumping wild men!

Watch out for those rolling ghost heads!

Own a dog?  Watch out for the suicide bridge!

Watch out for the creaking cauliflower!

Watch out for those lethal tennis games!

Watch out for those lethal umbrellas!

Watch out for those Illustrated Police News weddings!

Watch out for The Watcher!

New Zealand is really booming!

Australia is really booming!

One of the Georgian era's great dirty minds.

The case of the philanthropic witch.

A notorious French trunk murder.

Philippe de Loutherbourg, one of the 18th century's great "characters."

The horrifying fate of the Radium Girls.

Pro tip: When you're at war, make sure you're landing with your team.

The Gunning Sisters, social climbers extraordinaire.

Skepticism is all well and good, but this really seems to be a stretch.

Some haunted Scottish castles.  With or without mold.

"Ouch," Iron Age Dept.

Deporting the dead.

Correcting the historical record about Phineas Gage.

Paying a painful price for bigamy.

Emma Hardinge Britten's spectral stalker.

The ghosts of Mackinac Island.

Amelia Dyer, world's worst babysitter.

"Don't cry for me, Bosworth Fie-e-e-e-ld..."

The fight over whether or not Billy the Kid is dead.  Or something.

The 18th century really had a way with bigamy.

The Easter Island statues just keep getting weirder.

Death by flower petal. (Reminds me of those lines from "The Duchess of Malfi": "What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut with diamonds? or to be smothered with cassia? or to be shot to death with pearls?")

The "Land of the Faeries."

A guide to Georgian-era kitchens.

The history of the sneeze.

Laura Fair's deadly revenge.

Ghosthunters find a bit more than they bargained for.

Two early 20th century Indian suffragettes.

The legends of Mortimer's Tunnel.

Framing a two-year-old for murder.

Marcus Aurelius and the interpretation of history.

It seems that London is just lousy with superheroes.

How the Communists made people insane.

Is this Vincent Van Gogh?

These may be North America's oldest human footprints.

Victorian London captured in a series of photographs.

Thomas Kemble, kissing Colonist.

A young German bride begins a new life in Santa Fe.

How people died in 1743.

The creepy kidnapping that inspired a creepy novel.

A well-preserved ancient Roman shipwreck.

Samuel Drew and the Cornish Bear Monster.

A virtual time machine visits an ancient Roman town.

Speaking of the Romans, they had a real gift for snark.

An amazing 18th century Chinese clock.

I'm not sure if this is insulting to the Neanderthals or the Cossacks.

And, finally, a bear enjoying the daily laps in his swimming pool.

Well, it's time to bring down the curtain on yet another Link Dump. On Monday, I'll be back with a look at one of Kansas City's strangest murder cases. In the meantime, bring on The Band:

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via British Newspaper Archive

Last week's Link Dump included the story of "The Watcher," an anonymous figure sending eerily threatening letters to the new owners of a New Jersey mansion. The "Sunderland Echo" for July 23, 1949, carried the story of a similar, but arguably even more menacing, English case of harassment.

What is the truth behind the strange occurrences at 51 Nile Street. Sunderland? Who are the two "well-spoken men" who are said to lurk on the roof tops? What is the explanation of the "blood-stained shroud" which is supposed to have appeared and just as mysteriously disappeared?

For a month mysterious happenings have been terrifying 65-year-old Mrs Harriet Clark, tenant of the house in Nile Street.

She said to-day that "men wearing sandshoes climb to the windows and enter the house in the early hours of the morning."

She also said that she has handed over to the police a note she found sticking to an upstairs window. It was made of letters from newspaper headlines, and read "I Will Get You All."

Sitting in the second floor living room at 51 to-day, Mrs. Clark and relations told me their strange story (writes a Sunderland Echo reporter). Broken glass from a window which was "mysteriously broken” in the middle of the night lay on the window sill.

"It all began about a month ago." she said. "At about 1:30 a.m., we heard the back door creaking," said Mrs. Clark. "One of the family ran out and found the back-room light on, and the key from the door lying on the floor. There was no one there. Since then five windows have been broken during the night. My daughter Eva, aged 25, became so frightened that she rarely comes home during the day now. She spends the night at her sister's home.

I sit up with relations until 6 o'clock each morning—too scared to go to bed since a face appeared at the window behind my bed-head."

Mrs. Clark showed me marks on the windows of her kitchen which appear to have been made by burning cigarettes. They are about the height of a man's mouth from the wide window ledge outside, 20ft. from the ground.

She told me that about 10:30 last Thursday a mysterious parcel was found in an outhouse.

When we brought it in and opened it we found what looked a shroud embroidered with lilies. It bore marks which appeared to bloodstains.

“Unfortunately we wrapped it up and put it back in the outhouse and it disappeared by the time the police arrived."

"If it was a shroud. I can only that it must have been made for someone with plenty of money—it was so fancy."

Mr. William MacDonald (36), son-in-law of Mrs. Clark, spends most of his spare time at the house now, "waiting to try and catch these men.”

After one of the incidents he ran out and saw a man in sand-shoes climbing out of a window of an empty house next door.

"I chased this man and another as far as Tatham Street at about two o’clock in the morning. There I caught up with them, and one who was well spoken, turned and said they had only been taking lead from a roof.

"Then they knocked me down," he added.

"The police have been working hard since we reported the letters to them, but these people seem to know when the police are about. They did not come last night for instance."

Other people living at 51 Nile Street corroborated the details, and said that the intruders sometimes come twice in one night.

As police keep check, Mrs. Clark watches out from her windows on to the warren of narrow streets in the neighbourhood, sleeping by daylight.

A follow-up story appeared in the same newspaper two days later:

Miss Eva Clark, the 25-year-old Sunderland girl who is afraid to go home to her "haunted” home at 51 Nile Street had a threatening letter this morning and its contents were not ghostly. It is now in the hands of the police.

Her mother, 63-year-old Mrs Harriet Clark, who complains that strange things have been happening in the house for a month--including the discovery of a "blood-stained'' shroud--told a Sunderland Echo reporter to-day that the letter was written in such bad English that it marked the writer as uneducated. "People are wondering about the mystery of No. 51,” it read. "But there is no mystery about it. We have been watching you for some time and we are out to get you."

The letter was addressed to Miss Eva Clark, bore a Sunderland post mark and was franked at 5:30 yesterday.

Miss Clark, who now sleeps at the home of relations because she is afraid to go home, has not written to tell her 23-year-old Coldstream Guardsman fiance of the happenings at home. He is L. Cpl. Elliott of Seaham Harbour, now serving in Burma. The couple plan to marry when he returns from abroad before Christmas.

During the week-end dozens of sightseers stood outside the house. Strangers stood in groups in the front and back streets talking about the mystery.

"Three strangers called and offered to stay up all night in the house to try and help us," Mrs. Clark says. "We did not accept the offer.

"On Saturday night the sounds of footsteps across my ceiling returned again," she said.

Very oddly, this is the last I have been able to find about this story. As far as I know, the Clark family and their mysterious tormentors dropped from public view. This would seem to suggest either that the miscreants finally gave up their sadistic games, or it was discovered that someone in the Clark household engineered a hoax attack.

But what reason would anyone have to persecute the family in such a risky manner? And what would anyone in the household get out of staging these creepy visitations?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The First Great Shakespeare Skeptic

Practically all of us have our pet crotchets and theories. Usually, they remain nothing more than a hobby that keeps us entertained, even if it often bores those around us. Sometimes, however, they can take over our lives to the point where they become obsessions--even disturbing obsessions.

Once in a while, they can drive someone mad.

One of these thankfully rare examples of a person allowing a theory to gain control over them was Delia Bacon. Bacon was born in rural Ohio in 1811. Her father, an impoverished Congregationalist minister, relocated his family to Hartford, Connecticut before his death in 1817. Despite her family's lack of money, Delia received a good education in a private school run by Henry Ward Beecher's sister Catherine. (Miss Beecher recorded that she was impressed by her pupil's "fervid imagination" and "rare gifts of eloquence.") After she left school at the age of 14, Miss Bacon and an older sister made several efforts to start schools of their own, but without success.

In any case, Bacon's real dream was to become a professional writer. In 1831, she published a collection of short stories, "Tales of the Puritans," and the following year her story "Love's Martyr" won a writing contest sponsored by the Philadelphia "Saturday Courier." The judges praised her work for its "taste, genius, and feeling." Among the runners-up for the first prize was a then-unknown Baltimore writer named Edgar Allan Poe. (She later turned the story into a verse play, "The Bride of Fort Edward." Although Poe himself described it as containing "some richly imaginative thoughts, skillfully expressed," it did not find favor with the public.) Bacon also launched a career as a lecturer, speaking about literature and world history. The attractive, knowledgeable young woman's talks proved both critically and commercially popular. An admirer described her as "graceful and intellectual in appearance, eloquent in speech, marvelously wise, and full of inspiration, she looked and spoke the very muse of history."

Unfortunately, Bacon's personal life was not going as well as her increasingly promising professional career. She became romantically entangled with a Reverend Alexander MacWhorter. This relationship--apparently her first and last love affair--ended badly. She appears to have convinced herself that the young man--who was more than ten years her junior--would marry her, an idea he rejected incredulously. Delia's brother Leonard, outraged by the gossip his sister was attracting, had MacWhorter brought before his church on charges of "calumny, falsehood, and disgraceful conduct, as a man, a Christian, and especially as a candidate for the Christian ministry." At the resulting ecclesiastical trial, MacWhorter narrowly avoided being unfrocked. It did not help matters any when Bacon's friend Catherine Beecher, seeking to defend her, published "Truth Stranger Than Fiction," a thinly-disguised novel based on the scandal. Instead of helping Delia's cause, the book only drew additional attention to her unhappy love life. Bacon, deeply humiliated by the entire episode, disgustedly swore off men altogether.

It was perhaps this general sense of disillusionment that led her, at about this time, to develop a radical notion that would eventually consume her entire life. Her studies of literature gradually led her to entertain the idea--one that was at the time unprecedented heresy--that William Shakespeare was not--could not be!-- the author of the writings which bear his name. If he was the author, she mused, where are his original manuscripts? Why do we know so very little about him? Where did he get the erudition contained in these plays? Could such deeply philosophical works have been intended as mere popular stage fodder for the "unlettered masses?" The more she contemplated this startling notion, the more she succeeded in convincing herself that it was the truth. The man credited with writing some of the most renowned literature in history was, she decided, nothing but "a vulgar, illiterate...deerpoacher." His name, she argued, was used as a front for an underground group of Elizabethan geniuses, headed by Sir Francis Bacon, who really wrote the "Shakespeare" plays to promote their dangerously radical philosophies. She described Sir Francis and his supposed "collaborators" as a "little clique of disappointed and defeated politicians who undertook to head and organize popular opposition against the government, and were compelled to retreat from that enterprise.. .Driven from one field, they showed themselves in another. Driven from the open field, they fought in secret." The idea that the lowly, illiterate Shakespeare , "the Stratford poacher," wrote these transcendent works was, she proclaimed, "this great myth of the modern ages." "What infirmity of blindness is it, then, that we charge upon this 'god of our idolatry!' And what new race of Calibans are we, that we should be called upon to worship this monstrous incongruity--this Trinculo--this impersonated moral worthlessness?"

Although most of Bacon's family and friends scoffed at her new obsession, she managed to convince Ralph Waldo Emerson that she was on to something. An amateur Shakespeare scholar himself, Emerson reflected that what we know of Shakespeare depicts him as "a jovial actor and manager. I cannot marry this fact to his verse. Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought, but this man in wide contrast." Emerson was so impressed with Miss Bacon and her novel thesis that he supplied her with letters of introduction to aid her in going to England to pursue her research. She made the journey to Shakespeare Country in 1853.

Delia Bacon had landed the chance of a lifetime. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by her own increasingly frail emotional stability. English contacts such as Thomas Carlyle, (who "shrieked" when he first heard her theory,) soon decided that she was less of a serious scholar and more of a deluded eccentric. Probably out of a subconscious fear of proving herself wrong, Bacon rejected the idea of authentic historical research, relying instead on her "intuition." Her proof, she asserted, did not come from dry historical archives, but from the internal evidence found in the plays themselves. Comforting as such daydreams may have been for her, it soon alienated her backers completely. Even Emerson, discouraged by her reluctance to find hard evidence for her beliefs, dropped her, although he remained intrigued by her insights.

Bacon was left stranded in England, friendless and penniless. She was undeterred. She holed herself up in the dingy little room she was renting in the home of a shoemaker and frantically worked on a book about the fraudulent Shakespeare, "the stupid, illiterate, third-rate play-actor."  She knew her work would eventually vindicate her and make all her present sufferings worthwhile. It was "too gross to be endured" that anyone would think this man had written these plays.

Instead, her combination of poverty and overwork made her dangerously ill. Her alarmed doctor wrote for help to the American consulate in Liverpool. He explained that this American lady was "in a very excited and unsatisfactory state, especially mentally." He feared that "she will become decidedly insane."

The consul--who happened to be another author from New England, Nathaniel Hawthorne--did what he could for his distressed countrywoman, and under the care he authorized, Bacon recovered enough to complete her magnum opus, which she titled "The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded." Hawthorne read her manuscript, and while he remained unconvinced of her theory, he thought enough of it to agree that it deserved to be made public. He penned a forward to the work and found an English publisher, Groombridge and Sons, that was willing to take it on. (Unbeknownst to Bacon, Hawthorne secretly promised the publishers that he would cover any losses on the book. This act of literary generosity wound up costing him £238.)

By this point, Bacon had become fixated on the idea of opening Shakespeare's grave. She asserted that she "knew" that tangible proof of her theory had been entombed with the impostor. She argued this case so forcefully that the vicar of the church where Shakespeare lay expressed himself as willing to grant her request. Again, her inner lack of self-confidence caused her to back down. Hawthorne later wrote, not unsympathetically, that "A doubt stole into her mind whether she might not have mistaken the depository and mode of concealment of those historic treasures. And after once admitting the doubt, she was afraid to hazard the shock of uplifting the stone and finding nothing. She examined the surface of the gravestone, and endeavored, without stirring it, to estimate whether it were of such thickness as to be capable of containing the archives of the Elizabethan club. She went over anew the proofs, the clues, the enigmas, the pregnant sentences, which she had discovered in Bacon's letters and elsewhere, and now was frightened to perceive that they did not point so definitely to Shakespeare's tomb as she had heretofore supposed." Her secret uncertainties over what had become her life's work--and a work so at variance with her Puritan upbringing--were literally driving her crazy. Her family back in Hartford, deeply concerned about her, implored her to come home, but she refused. "I can not come," she wrote flatly. She was too frightened to seek proof of her theory, but she was too frightened to let it go, either.

Her "Shakespeare Unfolded" came out in April of 1857. In nearly 700 pages of rambling, confusing, virtually unreadable prose, Bacon laid out her belief that the historical William Shakespeare could not have had the broad education displayed in "his" plays. The knowledge of law, court life, and foreign lands shown in these works, were, she declared, indubitably beyond the man whom she dismissed as "Lord Leicester's stableboy." Her cherished book was, sadly, an utter flop. When it was noticed at all, it was resoundingly mocked.

Having one's most cherished beliefs publicly scorned would be hard on anyone. For someone as fragile as Delia Bacon, it proved virtually fatal. Failure left her so mentally and emotionally shattered that she was placed in an asylum in a village outside Stratford. In 1858, a nephew brought her back to Hartford. At the time of her death only a year later, she had never fully recovered her reason. A brother recorded that she died "thankful to escape from tribulation and enter into rest."

She would have died much happier if she had known that her skepticism about the Bard of Avon would, in the years after her death, gain a remarkable popularity. Her writings gained such illustrious adherents as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman, and Henry James. Although the "Baconian theory" itself is now largely out of vogue, the whole "Shakespeare authorship" debate is still alive and well.

Modern-day literary critic James Shapiro has asserted, "Had she limited her argument to these points ["collaborative authorship" of the plays] instead of conjoining it to an argument about how Shakespeare couldn't have written them, there is little doubt that, instead of being dismissed as a crank and a madwoman, she would be hailed today as the precursor of the New Historicists, and the first to argue that the plays anticipated the political upheavals England experienced in the mid-seventeenth century."

In other words, it could be argued that Delia Bacon was not an absurd fantasist, but a visionary scholar who tragically took a wrong path.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is brought to you by the League of Medieval Rocket Cats.

Who the hell was the Childers Claimant?

What the hell was a fetus doing with a 17th century bishop?

What the hell is this Canadian rock face?

Watch out for Harvard Medical Students!

Watch out for those jilted brides!

Watch out for Udder Snakes!

Watch out for Ohio Frog Folk!

Watch out for Gyre Carline!

One of the first tourists at the Waterloo battlefield.

The dog who became a detective.

The oldest known toy.  It's still darn cute, too.

A 17th century UFO battle.

The judicial murder of Eliza Fenning.  (My look at that sad case is here.)

The legend of Kitty Jay's grave.

A particularly weird story involving sinister letters and a million-dollar house.

It was hazardous to be the son of Peter the Great.  Especially if you were an ineffectual twerp.

Very bad things are happening in one Ohio town.

Knowing your Upper Servant Offices.

Lydia Pinkham, famed "woman's friend."

A rather delightful ghost in 18th century Cambridge.

A Cornish Horse God.

Identifying ancient bones.

Dysfunctional ancient Roman men?

Yes, we're still arguing over the Shroud of Turin.

Yes, we're still looking for Amelia Earhart.

John Pitcairn, a notable 18th century officer.

Exhuming Napoleon.

Did Stalin really have a breakdown in June 1941?


The two deaths of Raymond Stansel.

An unpublished early 19th century travel journal.

A famous entry in the Stupid Murder Sweepstakes.

Celebrating the second anniversary of Waterloo.

The history and mystery of the Major Oak.

Another Donald McCormick fraud.

Next time I complain about how much I hate wearing makeup, I have to remind myself that at least it's not crocodile dung.

House-training dogs through the ages.

The sad death of Margaret Thatcher, 1817.

The Restoration actress who unwittingly instigated a tragedy.

The Scarborough whirlwind, 1823.

Bigfoot is really growing up!

Worm charming.  Because it's just that kind of planet.

An experiment that showed how little we really know about sleep.

Schrödinger's Cat, RIP.

Midsummer Eve and the Black Death.

Was Richard Ivens guilty?

How to rebut your own death notice.

Examining the world's oldest dog.

And, finally, some dessert for your weekend: an ancient recipe for a tasty-sounding elderflower cheesecake.

We're done!  See you on Monday, when I'll be looking at the tragic tale of the woman who went up against William Shakespeare. In the meantime, here's Gillian Welch:

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

You may recall that last week, I presented the story of a woman who was engaged to a ghost. I think I've managed to top that one. From the "Hartford Herald," March 13, 1901:

Milwaukee, Wis., Mch. 7.--Edith Wagner, of Waukesha, has been married by a rural Justice of the Peace near Binghampton, New York, to her maltese cat. Her family has just been advised of the extraordinary wedding.

Miss Wagoner is a believer in the transmigration of souls. Some years ago she was engaged to be married to a young man named Edward Hamlin but before the wedding day arrived, he died of typhoid fever. On his death-bed Hamlin told his sweetheart that he knew he was going to die, but that he would always be near her.

Not long after his death a fine maltese cat appeared at her home and remained there and Miss Wagoner was convinced that the soul of her lover dwelt in this feline. Some time ago she went to New York, and while in Binghampton decided to marry her pet.

She took out a license in due form, giving a name that served for the cat, but when she tried to arrange for the performance of the ceremony, difficulties were encountered. Several ministers positively refused to officiate, and she finally went into the country, where she succeeded in finding a Justice of the Peace, who performed some sort of a marriage rite.

Miss Wagoner's friends are trying to persuade her to return home.

Hey, scoff all you want, but I'll bet this turned out better than any of the other marriages I've covered on this blog.