"...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

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Whether or not you believe in ghosts, we can all agree this is a heartbreaking little story. It comes from "Bell's Life in London" for February 27, 1825:

On Tuesday, an elderly lady made her appearance in the office, and, with countenance of the greatest solemnity, advanced towards the presiding Magistrate, Sergeant Sellon. After a pause of a few minutes, she proceeded as follows: "Please your Worship, may I speak?”—Sergeant Sellon: “Certainly, Madam.”— Then, Sir, you must know, that some months ago, I took lodgings in the neighbourhood of Burton-crescent, being a single lady—(here she heaved a deep sigh) I begged of Mrs. Cooper, a particular friend of mine, to let me have a kitten. This kitten, please your Worship, I reared from its infancy as if were my own child, it partook of every thing the same as myself; and in due time grew to be a fine cat. Unfortunately for me, you’ll excuse me, your Worship, a tom-cat. The lodgers having discovered the sex of the cat, considered it a reflection on a maiden lady to keep such one—and the consequence was, that both in the house and the street, every body pointed to me, and said, 'How is the tom-cat?' in fact, your Worship, I was literally worried.”—Sergeant Sellon : “Upon my word, Madam, I am nearly in the same state.”— The lady resumed : Well, Sir, they were not satisfied with this conduct, but they took an opportunity of 'spiriting’ away my cat, and murdering it—aye murdering it in the most inhuman manner. Was not that shocking, Sir?” —Sergeant Sellon : “ Most shocking, indeed! but what do you wish me to do; is it bring it to life again ?” —Lady: “Oh, by no means; but since its murder, the lodgers complain that the house is haunted by its ghost, and that they cannot sleep a wink from the noise which it makes caterwauling. I certainly frequently hear a scraping at my bed room door at night, and a mewing, and I believed the dear cat loved me so, that could he come see me he would; but for my peace on earth, until I leave my present lodgings I wish he would stay away.”—Sergeant Sellon: “This is, certainly Madam, a subject of great importance, so important, that I not feel myself competent to give any advice, or give any decision. I will, however, take a week to consider, during which time I beg that you will keep yourself tranquil, and not think on the tom cat, and by that time I may probably, by some spell, be enabled to bury his ghost in the Red Sea.” The old lady returned thanks to the worthy Sergeant for his promised magical efforts, and retired from the office, still sighing, "Oh! my poor cat!”

I wish I could report that the lady acquired better neighbors and a new pet to love, and that the ghost cat ensured his murderers met a hideous end, but I found no sequel to this story.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Murder of Caroline Luard: a Classic Edwardian Puzzle

Caroline Mary Hartley was born into a wealthy English family in 1850. In 1875 she married a professional soldier named Charles Edward Luard. After a lengthy career, Charles Luard retired in 1887 with the rank of Major-General in the Royal Engineers, and he and his wife settled into the pleasantly situated home of Ightham Knoll, in Kent. During his retirement, Luard served as a Kent County Councilor, a Justice of the Peace, and a Governor of a local school, while both the Luards also kept active with the usual genteel social activities.

During their life together, there were only two known dark spots: The death of the younger of their two sons in 1903, and a curious military scandal in 1879. After British troops were defeated by the Zulu in the Battle of Isandhlwana, blame for the debacle was given mostly to a Colonel Anthony Durnford. Durnford died during the battle, and thus was conveniently unable to defend himself.

However, many in the army believed Durnford was being posthumously slandered, and that the real responsibility for the defeat rested on the heads of more senior officers, most notably Baron Chemsford. Charles Luard, with, perhaps, more loyalty than tact, was actively involved in the campaign to save Durnford's good name. His charges against certain of his fellow officers were considered so inflammatory that Luard was court-martialed and censured. However, unpleasant as the whole episode may have been, Luard was apparently able to overcome the controversy and carry on with his career.

All in all, the Luards seemed wildly unsuited to have figured in one of Britain's classic murder mysteries.

Mrs. Luard earned her unenviable place in history on August 24, 1908. At about 2:30 that afternoon, she and her husband set out for a walk, accompanied by their dog. The Major-General planned to get his clubs from his Golf Club, while Mrs. Luard simply wanted a little stroll. She planned to return home soon, as she was expecting a friend named Mary Stewart to join her for tea.

The couple walked together for about half an hour before parting ways. The Major-General went off towards the Golf Course, while, he presumed, his wife made her way home. He was seen by a number of people during his solo journey. After he had gathered up his clubs, the local vicar, a Reverend Cotton, met him on the road at 4:20 and drove him back to Ightham Knoll.

Upon entering his home, Luard was surprised to find Mrs. Stewart still waiting the arrival of his wife, and he went out in search of Caroline. At about fifteen minutes past five, he found her.

Mrs. Luard was lying dead on the verandah of the empty summer house owned by neighbors. It was in a heavily wooded area about a mile from the Luard home. Someone had shot her in the head at very close range. The three rings she had been wearing were gone. One set of footprints led away from the body.

It was believed that Mrs. Luard had been killed at about 3:15, when several different witnesses heard the sound of three gunshots coming from the direction of the summer house. At that time, Major-General Luard was over a half-mile away, towards the golf course clubhouse. Bloodhounds were immediately brought on to the murder scene, but the trail they picked up went cold when they reached the main road. A clergyman driving near the murder scene around the time Mrs. Luard died told police he had seen a man with a "low type of face" emerging from the woods, but this alleged man was never found, and this possible clue went nowhere.

At the inquest, it was revealed that Mrs. Luard had been struck on the back of the head, knocking her violently to the ground. Someone then used at .320 revolver to shoot her behind the right ear and into her left cheek. The killer then removed her gloves, wrenched the rings off her hand, and fled into oblivion. The rings were never traced. It was noted that her husband did not own any guns which could have been the murder weapon. The coroner's jury returned the only possible verdict, that of "Murder by person or persons unknown."

Unfortunately, that was all anyone could say for sure about Caroline Luard's death, and the century since her death has not produced any further reliable information. The Luards appear to have been happily married, and there was no indication that this quiet, inoffensive woman had any enemies. The investigations of some crimes are hampered by a multiplicity of competing leads to follow. Others are hopelessly stymied by not having any leads at all. The Luard case is an outstanding example of the latter.

With such a lack of clues to go by, it was inevitable that rumor-mongering and baseless speculation would arise to fill that gap. Although the Major-General had no known motive, no sign of ever possessing anything that could have been the murder weapon, and as near to a cast-iron alibi as you'll find outside the pages of detective fiction, gossip quickly spread that he had shot his wife in cold blood and then stolen the rings to fool police into thinking she had been the victim of a robbery. Villagers muttered that this affluent, upper-class man was getting away with wife-murder because his influential friends were engaging in a cover-up. It was also rumored that Luard had been having an affair with a local woman. The widower began receiving vicious anonymous letters calling him a murderer, and threatening vengeance. Luard was so rattled by these faceless, nameless taunts that he put Ightham Knoll up for sale and made plans to leave the area. In the meantime, he went to stay at the home of a friend, Colonel Charles Edward Warde.

Luard's surviving son, Charles, was serving in the army in South Africa. He was, of course, immediately informed of his mother's death. He left for England as soon as possible, landing in Southampton on September 18.

He arrived to be confronted not just by one tragedy, but two. On the morning before Charles Luard arrived home, his father rose from bed, dressed, wrote letters addressed to his son, to Charles Warde, and to his brother-in-law Tom Hartley. He then walked to the nearby railway line. As the 9:09 train from Maidstone West to Tonbridge came up the tracks, he threw himself under it. The inquest on Luard's death had a verdict that was different, but just as starkly simple as his wife's: "Suicide while temporarily insane."

Luard had left in his room a note saying, "I am sick of the scandalous and lying reports, and I cannot face my son."  His letter to Warde read:  "I am sorry to have returned your kindness and hospitality and long friendship in this way, but I am satisfied it is best to join her in the second life at once, as I can be of no further use to anyone in future in this world, of which I am tired, and in which I don't wish to live any longer.  I thought my strength was sufficient to bear up against the horrible imputations and terrible letters which I have received since that awful crime was committed which robbed me of all my happiness.  And it is so lonely.  And the goodness, kindness, and sympathy of so many friends kept me going but somehow now the last day or two something seems to have snapped.  The strength has left me, and I care for nothing except to join her again.  So good-bye, dear friend, to both of us."

At the inquest, the coroner made a point of accusing the poison-pen writers (who were never identified) of being morally culpable in the Major-General's demise.

Eight months after Mrs. Luard's death, a workhouse inmate named David Woodruff was arrested and charged with her murder. It was widely suspected that his arrest was a "frame-up" devised by the Chief Constable (who was the brother of Luard's friend Charles Warde,) to conveniently "solve" the murder--a suspicion that only deepened when it was immediately established that Woodruff was in prison on the day Mrs. Luard died. The embarrassed police had no choice but to free their one and only suspect.

The investigation into the Luard murder was essentially over almost as soon as it had begun, but the conspiracy theories continue vigorously to this day. The idea that Mrs. Luard was killed by a highway robber or other wandering villain is the simplest solution, and perhaps for that reason it has gotten virtually no support at all. There is a general conviction that this was a carefully pre-planned murder, committed by someone she knew.

But who could this person have been? And what motive could he or she have had?

One popular theory gives a scenario that would do Agatha Christie proud. It involves a petty professional crook named John Alexander Dickman, who was executed in 1910 for the robbery/murder of a man named John Nisbet. At the time, however, many--including some of the jurors at his trial!--had doubts about Dickman's guilt, as his conviction was based on weak circumstantial evidence. However, then-Home Secretary Winston Churchill refused all requests to commute the death sentence. A judge named Sir Sidney Orme Rowan-Hamilton, who wrote a book about the case four years later, reportedly believed Dickman was the murderer of Caroline Luard. Clarence Henry Norman, who had served as court shorthand writer during Dickman's trial and subsequently led the efforts to have his sentence overturned, claimed that Sir Sidney told him that Mrs. Luard had--without her husband's knowledge--sent Dickman money after seeing an ad he had placed in the "Times" pleading for financial help. Dickman then altered her check so it showed a larger amount. When Mrs. Luard discovered this forgery, she secretly arranged a meeting with Dickman in order to confront him with his fraud. He chose to shut her up about his thievery by murdering her. According to Norman's account, friends of the Luards--who included the judge at Dickman's trial and Winston Churchill--all colluded to indirectly punish Dickman for the Luard murder by railroading him for the killing of Nisbet.

Unfortunately, as colorful as this scenario may be, there appears to be not one scintilla of evidence to support any of it, other than Norman's hearsay. Other armchair detectives have made brave attempts to formulate scenarios where Charles Luard--using a hidden bicycle or other devious means--might, just might, have been able to swiftly and secretly change his route long enough to shoot Caroline during her walk home. (To be fair, it is true that Charles' albi only holds up if the sounds witnesses heard at 3:15 were indeed those of the gunshots that killed Caroline--something which was never absolutely proven. In the British countryside, the sound of gunshots made by hunters was commonplace.) Out of sheer desperation, a few people have even wondered if Charles Luard's court-martial might have had something to do with his wife's murder many years later. Could Mrs. Luard have been murdered by a secret lover? Or killed by her husband because she had a secret lover?

So many theories, so few facts. It is as if Caroline Luard was murdered by a phantom.

"Western Gazette," August 27, 1909

Friday, July 24, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is proud to be sponsored by Wang the Pirate Cat.

(More on this story can be found here.)

How the hell did Zachary Taylor die?

How the hell did this Swiss watch wind up in an ancient Chinese tomb?

Who the hell murdered Dottie and Bob Tidwell?

What the hell are these ancient gold spirals?

Where the hell is W.B. Yeats?

Watch out for those killer parties!

Watch out for those haunted mines!

Watch out for those Vile Vortices!

Toledo is really booming!

How Charles Dickens is rewriting 19th century literary history.

That time Wyatt Earp may have fixed a fight.

How cats became grimalkins.

The princess who was "fair, good, accomplished, and unhappy."

The life and times of an 18th century rogue.

Communist Party party tips!

Oh, well, aside from that...

More about Alexander Pope's Great Dane.

High strangeness in 17th century York.

A wonderful look at 18th century entertainment.

Hortense Mancini, well-traveled in life and death.

Premonitions of disaster, 1915.

18th century domestic violence ends in murder.

The Great Indonesian Chicken Church.

Sarah Belzoni, intrepid traveler.

Growing up medieval.

When Coney Island used babies as a sideshow.

The possessions of an eighteenth-century sailor.

The strange case of the Philadelphia Miracle.

The even stranger case of the Lenni-Lenapes.

The history of the pet parrot.

Well, that was fast:  A roundup of Pluto conspiracy theories.

Three things I never expected to find in the same link:  Julia Child, the CIA, and sharks.

That time the Virgin Mary appeared in Limerick.

The perils of 18th century bathing.

The original Supertramps.

The oldest known dental work.

The oldest known pictograph?

An Aboriginal cricket team tours England, 1868.

How Nikola Tesla talked to aliens.

Holding corpses for ransom.

Getting punch drunk.

One of the worst mother-daughter teams in history.

Yes, I had to include a 17th century game called "Fart in the Face."  Because I just have a nose for that kind of thing.  [There ya go, Sarah Murden!  :) ]

The Japanese got a bit weird about certain bodily functions, too.

The Case of the Murderous Metaphysician.

The rise and fall of a famed courtesan.

The mystery of the Murder Marsh.

The weirdly prophetic novels of Morgan Robertson.

Murder by nuclear reactor?

Why some sports deserve to die.

Some first-person accounts of the Siege of Lucknow.

Oh, by the way, there's a guy in Omaha who has a warp drive in his garage.

And, finally, in case you missed it, here's a link to, well, um, me.

And so ends yet another Link Dump.  See you all on Monday, when I'll be looking at a classic Edwardian murder mystery.  In the meantime, here's some words of wisdom from Tonio K.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Guest Post!

A twofer for this Wednesday:  My guest post at The Witch, The Weird, and The Wonderful about a deal with the Devil that--surprise!--probably didn't work out too well for either side.

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Well, this is just plain weird. From the "Caledonian Mercury," December 4, 1794:
In February last, a detachment of mounted infantry, commanded by Captain John Beard, penetrated fifteen miles into the Cumberland mountain.

On Cove Creek, Ensign McDonald and another man, in advance of the party as spies, discovered a creature about three steps from them; it had only two legs, and stood almost upright, covered with scales of a black, brown, and a light yellow colour in spots like rings, a white tuft or crown on the top of its head, about four feet high, a head as big as a two pound stone, and large eyes of a fiery red.

It stood about three minutes in a daring posture (orders being given not to fire a gun except at the Indians.) Mr. McDonald advanced, and struck at it with his sword, when it jumped at least eight feet, and lit on the same spot of ground, sending forth a red kind of matter out of its mouth, resembling blood, and then retreated into a laurel thicket, turning round often as if it intended to fight.

The tracks of it resembled that of a goose, but larger.

The Indians report that a creature inhabits that part of the mountain of the above description, which, by its breath, will kill a man, if he does not instantly immerse himself in water.

So, what to make of this alleged cross between Bigfoot and Spring-heeled Jack?

Damned if I know.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Great Stork Derby

Canadian attorney and entrepreneur Charles Vance Millar did not appear to be a controversial sort of man. After his death, his best friend G. Clayton Anderson described him as "a great joker," with "a great sense of humor, but it was always kindly. He was a warm, generous-hearted man...a great giver." Millar had two main beliefs: his insistence that "every man had his price," and his reverence for the concept of motherhood. Anderson quoted Millar as saying, "The proper function of a woman is to raise a family."

No one knew how serious Millar was about these beliefs until after he died in 1926.

Millar was an extremely wealthy man, and, as those with money and property generally do, he left a will. It was, however, a very unusual will, one that was contested in the courts for a dozen years to come, generated many columns of newspaper commentary, and kept the ladies of Canada very busy indeed.

Millar introduced his last testament by stating, "This will is necessarily uncommon and capricious because I have no dependents or near relations and no duty rests upon me to leave any property at my death and what I do leave is proof of my folly in gathering and retaining more than I required in my lifetime." He followed these words with some singular bequests: Shares in the Ontario Jockey Club went to two acquaintances who were fervently anti-gambling. Every prohibitionist Protestant minister and Orange Lodge in Toronto got shares in the O'Keefe Brewery Company--a Catholic-owned business. Every minister in three neighboring towns got shares in the Kenilworth Jockey Club. His home in Jamaica went to three friends who all detested each other. Millar enjoyed the thought of encouraging them to become roommates. And so on. The will was his way of trying to demonstrate that, given sufficient temptation, anyone could be bought. It must be said that the fact that nearly all his legatees pocketed their pride and their principles enough to keep their bequests seemed to prove the old devil right.

Millar ended this lengthy raspberry to the world with the will's most troublemaking clause: He left the rest of his considerable estate to whichever Toronto woman gave birth to the most children in the ten years following his death. The courts later ruled that each set of children had to have the same father, and they all had to be legitimate.

Millar's relatives did not appreciate the humor of it all. They made long and determined efforts to contest the will, arguing that it "encouraged immorality," and was "against public policy," but the dead man had been an excellent lawyer, and had made his curious document legally invincible. The courts had no choice but to unanimously rule that the will was valid. And so the "Stork Derby," as the press quickly dubbed the contest, was on.

This public festival of fecundity became a national sensation. For the next decade, Canadian newspapers published feature stories on the contenders and kept scorecards, while onlookers placed bets on the outcome. The bizarre will of a previously-unknown man became a much-needed bright spot to a nation that was greatly suffering from the Great Depression. In the words of Barbara Mikkelson's "The Great Stork Derby": "A bequest that had been little more than a curiosity during the halcyon days of the 1920s became the only beacon of hope for a brighter future to a few lucky families…In those dark, grim days, even those families not part of the baby race themselves cheered on those who were. For those few years, there was a way out; there was a fairy godmother to believe in."

The winners crossed the finish line on May 30, 1938, when a judge distributed Millar's estate--which had, by that point, grown to over $750,000--to Annie Smith, Kathleen Nagle, Lucy Timleck, and Isabel Maclean, who had each delivered nine children over the past decade. Several runners-up with more dubious claims got $12,500 each. Happily, the four winning families--all of them extremely poor--made wise use of their windfall: Thanks to Millar, the 36 "Stork Derby" children were all given comfortable homes, a good education, and a solid head start in life. They all grew up fondly thinking of Millar as practically their grandfather.

At the end of the contest, Mrs. Timleck told a reporter, "I think birth control is a wonderful thing."

Friday, July 17, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the League of Bookworm Cats.

What the hell is this crystal?

What the hell happened on this Texas train?

How the hell did these 17 bodies wind up in a Norwich well?

How the hell did Amy Robsart die?

Why the hell are all these birds in Idaho dying?

Why the hell are all these birds in Florida disappearing?

Watch out for those ghost cars!

Watch out for those hairy hands!

Watch out for those Out Proctors!

Bolivia is really booming!

New Jersey's Great Cow Chase.

How to eat like a Georgian.

William Fly, who learned too late that he really wasn't cut out for piracy.

The first broomstick-riding witch.

Jane Austen, schoolgirl.

The ghostly nun who turned to stone.

The hazards of Georgian era clothing.

A horrific plague in 18th century Marseilles.

Those Siberian craters just keep getting weirder.

A delightful tale of blood-drinking orgies and Teddy Roosevelt.

Some remarkable--and mysterious--Ethiopian churches.

A handy guide to 19th century French swindles.

The Great Sheep Panic.

A strange Celtic boneyard.

I'll see your Stonehenge and raise you one Marden Henge.

Are the aliens already among us?

A pioneering female film director.

A notorious 14th century witchcraft trial.

Charlotte Corday:  Heroic martyr or base assassin?

Reconstructing Bach.

When things get weird for the weird.

The train dogs of Chemung County.

Was Eva Peron lobotomized?

This should be interesting:  A new blog devoted to the diary of a Georgian lady who lived into the Victorian era.

If you're too freaking stupid to take a selfie without killing yourself, here's the link for you.

A very strange tale of a 13th century "evil spirit."

The story behind the first Gothic novel.

A Napoleonic scoundrel.

A Crazy Cat Lady after my own heart.

The good news?  You get paid to be on a remote, ghost-infested island for six months.  The bad news?  You have to learn Welsh.

Cecily Neville, a quietly important figure in 15th century English history.

Tennis in the early 20th century Gulf.

ladder full of cats.

And, finally, a dancing seagull.

It's a wrap!  See you on Monday, when we'll be taking another look at Weird Wills.  In the meantime, here's the world's oldest harpsichord: