"...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

Friday, October 24, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company asks everyone to sit back, relax, and enjoy the links.

The cats need no such urging.

What the hell happened to the Kissing Bandit?

What the hell happened in Lahinch in 1833?

What the hell is shining in Mooloolaba?

What the hell is in the Baltic Sea?

What the hell is the Mystery Stone of Lake Winnipesaukee?

What the hell was the "Wow" signal?

What the hell is the Shigir Idol?

What the hell caused the Great Chicago Fire?  Don't blame the cow!

What the hell caused the Great Stock Market Crash of 1987? Don't blame the cow for that one, either!

Where the hell is the cursed Treasure of Urquhart Castle?

What the hell is the animal in this manuscript?

Who the hell were the Hobbit Humans?

Watch out for those 17th century remedies!

Watch out for those Serbian vampires!

Watch out for those fraudulent Anglo-Saxon goldsmiths!

Watch out for those Copycat Creepy Clowns!

Watch out for those succubi!

Sicily is really a hot place!

Louisiana is really booming!

The House of Correction for Bad Wives.

A handy guide to the Dudes of the Dutch Republic.

Another case where the "unwritten law" prevailed.

Getting hysterical about hysteria.  Nuts about nuttiness!  Loony about lunacy!

I'll stop now.

A genealogist looks at the mysterious death of Edgar Allan Poe.

Is life here on earth the universe's "last man standing?"

Was Stonehenge mentioned in an 8th century poem?

How to make dainty sport with your cat.

Telephony Music.

Ah, what might have been:  The unwritten canon of M.R. James.

The Guardian gets really silly over Tutankhamun.

Dueling over Newfoundland dogs, 1803.

Was Dorothy Kilgallen the woman who knew too much?

Tea:  What can't it do?

Nigel de Brulier:  a long-forgotten, but interesting character actor from Hollywood's early days.

Catherine Macaulay, England's "first female historian."

Greatest celebrity endorsement ad ever?

Music that's to die for.

The Great Fake Butter Swindle.

Palmerston Island:  For those who just can't get enough frenetic activity and constant crowds of people.

Speaking of famously remote places, it turns out Easter Island wasn't as lonely as we thought.

Anyone want to rebuild a haunted house?

Superman is buzzing planes now.

Because who doesn't need their own Vampire Hunting Kit?

The conjoined Hungarian Sisters.

A tribute to an amazing mynah bird.

The murderer who inspired Oscar Wilde.

Ursula Le Guin talks dogs and cats.

Teaching atomic theory...2600 years ago.

The hanging of Maggie Houghtaling: Were there reasonable doubts?

A treasure trove for anomalists:  Charles Fort's "small glow-worms of strangeness" will soon be made publicly available.

Some ancient cursing tablets.

The witches of Cornwall--right in someone's front yard!

A medieval Russian shopping list.

The many lives of Winchester Castle's Great Hall.  With some wonderful photos.

Sarah Bernhardt sees spirits, raises hell.

Forget Andy Kaufman.  I'm looking forward to the Ambrose Bierce comeback.

Oh, those Mitfords!

The rat-fighting cats of the Brooklyn Naval Yard.

The real history of mermaids.

So I'm wrong.  So there are times when it's possible to have too much beer.

Before there were drones, there were carrier pigeons.

A look at horse racing's Great Mares.

That's it for this week's Friday links.  See you all on Monday, when we'll be suing ghosts in medieval Iceland.  Until then, it's quitting time!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

"I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong."
~ Edgar Allan Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado"

via British Newspaper Archive

This Poe-like tale of an abused elephant's long-delayed but fatal revenge appeared in the "Illustrated Police News" on January 23, 1897. It is one more piece of evidence for what I have felt to be true for as long as I can remember: Animals have hearts, minds, souls--and memories--that are at least equal to our own.

A man named Alan Alfred Baker, who was formerly connected with Mr. George Sanger's travelling circus, whilst on a visit to the stables on Sunday afternoon, was attacked and killed by one of the performing elephants. From the circumstances surrounding the affair, it would seem that the creature had a grudge of old standing against Baker, for the instant the poor fellow appeared the elephant lunged at him, and pinned his victim against a brick wall, inflicting wounds that were speedily fatal. Indeed, when the keeper and trainer Mr. John Tottenham, or "Killinbach," who was present at the moment, feeding the animals, intervened to drag the unfortunate man beyond the animal's reach, the elephant strained upon the shackles to again transfix his victim.

The stables referred to, where Mr. Sanger keeps a portion of his menagerie, are in a building in Bentley Street, off Kingsland Road, Dalston. Baker, who was a tall, handsome man, of about twenty-seven years of age, and a native of Hastings, was conveyed upon an ambulance to the Metropolitan Hospital, where he died shortly after being admitted. The case was pronounced hopeless from the first by the police-surgeon of the district, Dr. Jackman, who was called into the stables. The elephant had driven his right tusk into poor Baker's head, causing the brain to protrude. The man never regained consciousness, though it is stated he tried to speak when a friend named Mr. Catling saw him immediately after the occurrence.

For some weeks Mr. George Sanger's menagerie and circus has been attracting overflowing houses in a turning off Dalston Lane. near the railway station. Baker, who like most sawdust-ring showmen, had a nom de guerre, or nickname, was known among his friends as "Belgium." Others there are of the craft dignified by the less complimentary names of "Moucher," "Tea Leaves," "Short Pipe," &c. Baker practically learned his business at Sanger's, beginning as a stable-hand, and rising through the grades of performer to trainer. It is said he was at times brusque in manner to the animals under his care, and that he lacked the patience and perseverance in kindness so indispensable in dealing with dumb brutes. However that may be, he was discharged from Sanger's last March, when they were at Bedford. After filling a somewhat similar situation elsewhere, he applied for a re-engagement with Mr. Sanger, and on Sunday last was told that he could start at his old job on Monday, there being a temporary vacancy. Later in the day Baker proceeded to the stables to call on Tottenham, who was an old acquaintance and a fellow-lodger, to go with him and have tea. In this wintry weather, three elephants belonging to the menagerie and several camels are stalled in part of a stout brick building used as workshops, whilst the other animals needing quarters snugger than under canvas are bestowed in the neighbourhood in like manner. According to "Killinbach," otherwise Tottenham, he was carrying hay to the elephants and spreading it out for them--for "Charlie, "Mary," and "Jenny" when "Belgium" entered by the small wicket door, and sauntering up with his hands in his overcoat pocket, called to him, "Ain't you coming to tea?" Before Tottenham had time to reply, the elephant "Charlie," apparently recognising Baker by the sound of his voice, for it was nearly dusk in the stable, thrust forward violently at his old keeper. Baker must have been taken unawares, for, fettered as the animal was to a strong peg driven into the ground, he could only lean far enough forward by straining upon the few links of chain to get at the wall where his victim stood unconscious of danger. The walls are about 11ft apart in the building, and Baker was standing nearly opposite, whilst Tottenham was bending down close to the animal's feet. Seeing his comrade fall, Tottenham realised in a moment what had happened. He sprang and grabbed Baker away, at the same time roaring "Get back, Charlie." He placed the wounded trainer upon a truss of hay, but even then the elephant tried to reach him, and Tottenham seized a spade and drove the brute back to his place. The other two elephants kept quiet, Tottenham says, but "Charlie" trumpeted angrily. As for "Mary," who is nearer sixty than fifty years of age, and therefore no lamb, at the sight of the blood on Baker's face and body, she looked, and then turned her head away.

Everybody at Singer's gives ''Charlie" a good character. Never, they aver, was there a quieter or more tractable animal, except, perhaps, "Mary." He has never hurt anyone before. The animal was bought about thirty-one years ago, when a nine-year-old baby, being part of a batch of Indian elephants which at that period were sent over in large numbers. Tottenham believes the animal must have had an idea of paying back old scores, and Mr. Sanger, Mr. Olliver, the manager, and Mr. J. D. Humphreys, an old showman and trainer, all of whom have known ''Charlie" from his babyhood, hold to the same opinion. After his bloodthirsty outbreak of passion "Charlie" sulked, and refused to eat until late the following day. A representative of the Daily Telegraph saw the animal in the course of the day, patted him, and examined his tusks. Certainly the creature at that time seemed docile and tractable enough. "Charlie," although twenty-eight years old, is said to be not quite full-grown yet. He weighs over three tons, stands about 11ft in height, and yet has only short tusks, not much more than a foot in length. In a chat with Mr. Humphries, that gentleman said there were no trade secrets about training. He had taken in hand the education of all sorts of animals, domestic and wild horses, elephants, lions and tigers, and monkeys, which are troublesome. Now he was an advance agent, but he had a kindly feeling for all his dumb-brute pupils still, and sometimes went and called on old elephant friends. They always knew him, recognising his voice when he called. them, though they might not be in a position when at the moment they could not see him. Whatever an animal was, a quiet runner or a bolter, it would yield to treatment. The trainer had to know himself, and be firm, steadfast, patient, and kind. "Why," said Mr. Humphreys, "here's my secret as far as elephants and horses go. A little bit of carrot and more carrot, a pat and a pat and a 'bravo.' when they do their business correctly and show sense. Bless you, it's wonderful how they work to please you for these nice, well-washed carrots," and Mr. Humphreys produced an edible and tempting specimen of that humble root. "I trained 'Charlie' on them, and never had any trouble with him. Oh no, he is not in any state of must, and his temper all through has been as good as gold. Carrots and kindness is the way. But the trouble is, some keepers are rough and hasty, and try and drive them too hard. Now, I have noticed a dumb brute never forgets an injury, and keepers sometimes see too many friends lose their heads a bit, and, trying to show off, do things the poor creatures remember against them. 'Belgium' was away from us ten months, but there's lots of cases stranger than his. There was the elephant, 'Blind Bill,' that in Myers's Circus at the Alexandra Palace, fourteen years ago, killed his keeper, whom the brute had not seen for seven years previously. Then there was something of the sort happened with 'Big Jenny,' who died at Boulogne."

The deceased man was unmarried. Quite recently he was an inmate of St. Thomas's Hospital, where he was attended for an injury to the head, caused, as stated originally, from the kick of a horse. The deceased's parents are in poor circumstances. Mr. George Sanger has kindly notified that he will defray the necessary funeral expenses. Baker's father is a working coachsmith at Hastings, and is naturally terribly distressed at his son's death.

The inquiry into the circumstances attending the death of Alan Alfred Baker, aged twenty-seven years, an elephant trainer, late of Kingsland Road, was held by Dr. Wynn Westcott at the Hackney Coroner's Courts. The deceased, it will be remembered, was gored to death on Sunday evening last by an elephant named "Charlie," belonging to Sanger's Circus, now at Dalston.

John Killinbach, known as "Tottenham," an elephant trainer at the circus, stated that he had only held the position for the past ten months, having succeeded the deceased, who had had charge of "Charlie" and other elephants for some years. The animals were stabled in Bentley Road, Kingsland, and were there on the day of the occurrence. "Charlie" all the time he had been under the care of witness had been a very quiet and docile elephant. On Sunday. between five and six o'clock in the evening, witness was feeding the animals. He threw a quantity of hay to "Charlie," who was chained by two legs, when Baker entered the stable. He said to witness "Are you coming to tea? " and no sooner had he spoken than the animal rushed at him and jammed him against the wall with his tusks, one of which seemed to enter the head, near the ear.

The Coroner: How do you account for this sudden attack?

Witness: I am of opinion that the elephant recognised the voice of his old keeper, and having a grudge against him for some cruelty, gored him. Baker had not seen "Charlie" for ten months.

Have you ever heard that the elephant had attacked anyone else?--No, never; he was as quiet as a child.

"Lord " George Sanger, the proprietor of the circus, said that he had had the elephant for thirty-one years. He was of the Indian species, and was about nine years old when imported. The deceased had had charge of the elephants for about four years, and "Charlie" was one of the quietest animals ever shown. Witness agreed with the first witness as to the act being the result of antagonism.

The Coroner: Was the animal generally considered to be a good one, quiet and peaceable?--Witness: None better. Witness added that Baker got into the hands of the police at Bedford, and that was the reason he left the circus. Witness had promised to employ the deceased, but stipulated that he should have nothing to do with the elephants.

The Coroner: Do you think, then, that elephants remember how they are treated?

Witness: Most certainly, and I speak from forty-five years' experience. The animal was not properly treated by Baker, but I don't want to say any more of that. Elephants always remember kindness. I recollect once meeting an elephant I had not seen for about two years, and the animal was so pleased and affected that tears actually ran down its face. On one occasion my little nephew was playing round "Charlie's" legs, when the animal took him up with his trunk, shook him gently and then set him down. "Charlie" has been in five Lord Mayor shows, and was for years at the old Ampitheatre, Westminster Bridge Road, but has never before shown any bad temper.

In answer to the Coroner, the witness said that he could not remember an elephant being born in England, not even at the Zoo.

Without calling further evidence, the jury returned a verdict of death from misadventure.

The Coroner asked whether the jury wished to add any rider or recommendation to the verdict.

The Foreman: We do not think it is necessary.

In pace requiescat!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review: "The Victorian Book of the Dead," by Chris Woodyard

After reading this book, talking ravens just aren't good enough for Edgar anymore.
He wants a homicidal parrot.

Do you wake up in the morning saying, "Damn it, my life needs more undertakers who give out trading stamps!" Are you longing for stories about killer parrots? Post-mortem spontaneous combustion? Shrieking banshees, mourning bicycles, and, of course, corpse furniture?

If you are a regular reader of this blog, your answer is undoubtedly, "Hell, yes." Well, pine no more, my friends, because have I got the book for you.

As I have often said, no people on earth have ever done death quite like the Victorians. In "The Victorian Book of the Dead," long-time Strange Company favorite Chris Woodyard has done a masterful job in compiling from 19th-early 20th century newspapers, books, and journals an encyclopedic review of all the various ways our ancestors devised to turn bereavement into an epic trip down the rabbit hole.

This book is, in the author's words, "a historical look at the ephemera and material culture of mourning; a reflection of some popular Victorian attitudes towards death and the bereaved; and a macabre scrapbook." Perhaps only the ancient Egyptians rivaled the Victorians in ritualizing death--a practice that both fed and fed upon the simultaneous 19th century spritualism craze. Woodyard notes that "How we mourn our dead says something of who we are." What this book abundantly proves is that the Victorians, if nothing else, certainly "knew how to mourn." This trait, as Woodyard hints, could teach our modern death-phobic and materialist society a few lessons. Yes, the rituals of this bygone era were often silly or downright bizarre, but were such practices really necessarily stranger than modern day "happy funerals," with the ubiquitous "celebrations of life," and our habitual reluctance to confront the realities of death and mourning?

"Book of the Dead" begins, appropriately enough, with that popular staple of Victorian life, the Death Angel. Whether it took the form of an actual angel, a menacing skeleton, a little old lady, or a pigeon, Victorians loved their symbols of impending doom.

Harbingers of Death came in many forms. Woodyard examines the visions, banshees, Black Dogs, Women in Black, and other phenomena that tipped people off that it was time to break out the crape and yell for the undertaker. (Of particular note is the spiritualist who poisoned herself to ensure her prophecies of her own death came true--which certainly showed a rare sense of dedication.) My favorite in this category, however, is probably the Crumbling Phonograph Records of Doom. ("Your Hit Funeral Parade!") While most of the portents were ominous or frightening, there are also poignantly sentimental tales of the dead returning to tenderly escort dying loved ones to the Other Side.

The book's most macabre section deals not with the rituals of death, but the deaths themselves. As the old adage says, there are "a million ways to die," and by golly, the Victorians practiced all of them, and probably invented a few new methods along the way:

Death by growing a family of lizards in your innards.
Murdered at the hands...uh, beak...of an "evil-dispositioned" drug-addicted parrot.
Finished off by poisoned gloves.
Strangled by your own hair.
Eaten alive by rats.
Dispatched into eternity by a cow's moo.

Now, that's what I call really livening up the obituary column.

There is also a chapter dealing with those who made a living from the dead. Here we meet the Professional Mourners: Sometimes they were sable-clad ladies who advised newly-minted widows about the most chic all-black fashions, or, more commonly, they were literal funeral attendees-for-hire. Or perhaps jovial grave-diggers are more to your taste? Crazed cemetery guards? Tombstone Censors? Corpse barbers? Undertakers whose posh shops showcased coffins and headstones so dainty and elaborate that window-shoppers positively envied the dead?

The Victorian obsession with "correct mourning" inspired Woodyard's handy guide to "Crape: Its Uses and Abuses." Mourning wear, we learn, had an etiquette all its own that rivaled anything seen at the court of Louis XIV. Hanging that grim symbol of death outside your door had many possible uses besides the obvious: as a crude practical joke, a political protest, or simply a general display of disgust against the world. Or perhaps you would choose to display your sorrow with a black mourning bicycle? Hair jewelry? Wreaths from the dead person's clothes? Black cigarettes?

It was not just the living who had to concern themselves with the latest fashions: Elaborate burial clothing and swanky coffins for the dearly departed was a highly profitable business. Often, the deceased was buried showing considerably more style than they ever displayed while alive. Ladies sometimes made their own elaborate shrouds years before their death: a trousseau for their inevitable marriage with the Grim Reaper.

And woe be to the undertaker who neglected his trading stamps!
"Trading stamps with every funeral" is the placard that one may expect to see soon in the windows of up-to-date Chicago undertakers.

That two or three funeral directors on the Northwest Side of the city have adopted the trading stamp system to increase business was revealed yesterday when a bereaved widow cancelled an order at a downtown undertaker's because he would not give her some stamps.

Friends of hers, she said, who recently had deaths in their families were given trading stamps by the undertaker, and she insisted on getting the coupons or she would go elsewhere. 

The matter of trading stamps will be brought before the Chicago Undertakers Association at its next meeting. [page 243]

The above story was preceded by an anecdote about another new widow who demanded her stamps, declaring that "I've just lost my third and don't intend to lose a chance at a cuckoo clock into the bargain."

Despite all this careful preparation, Death has a way of spoiling even the most careful plans. "Book of the Dead" treats us to wakes where the "deceased" suddenly comes back to life to crash the party. Cats who attack the reverently laid-out corpse. And what would any collection of Funeral Horrors be without those cases where there were those irritating nagging doubts about whether or not the newly-buried had been well and truly dead?

But wait, there's more! Victorian publications were rife with exuberantly "grewsome" tales of funerals spoiled by exploding corpses, out-of-control hearses, mourners crushed by falling coffins, fatal illnesses caught from preparing the body for burial, and other unmannerly nuisances instigated by the dearly departed.

It is hard to top the spontaneously combusting corpse, though.

It was inevitable that all this post-mortem mayhem would result in some very uneasy spirits. There are many accounts of haunted cemeteries and morgues. Restless spirits would return to pester the living with wrongs they wanted to right, to avenge their murder, to give instructions about their burials (suitable burial clothes were a particular concern,) or simply because they were not ready to let go of this world. Such accounts appear throughout most of recorded history, but the Victorian era, predictably, brought forth a particularly weird and plentiful crop of such Gothic horrors.

Speaking of horrors, Victorian morbidity focused not merely on the spirits of the dead, but their corporeal remains. Stories abound of mourners refusing to allow the dead to be buried, preserving and petrifying them in various ghastly ways. Bones and various other body parts were kept as keepsakes. One enterprising widow "kept her family together" by eating her cremated husband's ashes. (Although "a little of him did perhaps go a long way.")

The high--or, if you prefer, low--point of this curious mania was devised by the Florentine professor Girolamo Segato, who developed a thankfully-lost method of petrifying human remains and turning them into furniture. Some of his handiwork still exists today.

Leave it to the Victorians to pair Ikea with Ed Gein.

"Book of the Dead" is, however, far from being a cheaply titillating assortment of ghoulish oddities. Woodyard's sober, respectful, and scholarly annotations make this volume an original look at a Golden Age in Death History. The stories dealing with the lonely, neglected burials of the poor and friendless, and the many pitiful descriptions of deathbed grief, remind us that the Victorian predilection for the outward trappings of mourning were often not mere show, but sincere demonstrations of profound sorrow.

Although most of us today do not relate to mourning bicycles or post-mortem photography, anyone who has ever experienced personal loss can empathize with the final entry in Woodyard's book: Reverend John Todd's description of the 1827 death of his nine-day-old son.
"I shall perish sooner than forget the feelings which I had clinging around our dear first-born. I know that we did not deserve him, and that it was all right; but my aching heart too frequently goes back to that dear lost one, and the gems of all the earth could not compensate for the loss of that one. Is he now alive? Shall we ever know him? Will that beautiful form ever come up again from the tomb? Oh, the agony of that moment when the little coffin-lid was actually closed! May God in mercy spare me from ever witnessing another such scene!"

In short, this book is not just fascinating history, but an excellent training manual for The Weird. Buy it. Study it. Read it to your small children before bedtime to ensure you raise really, really interesting adults.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Don't let this week's collection of links bend you out of shape.

Leave that to the cats.

What the hell happened to Lake Waiau?

What the hell fell from the sky in New Jersey?

Where the hell is Philip of Macedon buried?  Now we know!

What the hell happened to MH 370?  Will we ever know?

Watch out for the Big Muddy Monster!

Watch out for Teddy Rowe's Band!

Watch out for miniature coffins!

Watch out for Bakersfield clowns!

Watch out for those Golems!

Watch out for those Victorian baths!

Watch out for Tecumseh's Great Spirit!

Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas are really booming!

Look up in the sky!  It's a bird!  No, it's a plane!  No!  It's...Superman's ghost!!

Alternate headline:  "Sheep Dog Avenges Rat."

How a Confederate officer and some grave-robbers unwittingly revolutionized 20th century forensics.

"Jaws" goes to court:  The strange case of the Shark Papers.

Lord Byron:  the first Sexy Vampire?

It's a Dandy in Distress!

The long, painful death of a Siberian princess.

This guy is pretty diseased, all right.

Julia Pastrana, one of the most famous bearded ladies.

Distillery Cats:  "Personable, but with a killer's instinct."

A possible link between those mysterious Siberian craters and the Bermuda Triangle.

The Czech nurse who took "sleeping with the enemy" to a whole 'nother level.

What's even better than a poison duel?  A poison-pen duel!

The diary of a diplomat's wife.

The ghost of No. 281 Stuyvesant.

A great day for cats:  The birth of the catnip mouse.

A classic bit of historical weirdness:  The legend of the Ghoul of Glamis.

How Scotland came to be full of monuments to a crook.

How a piece of bread and an apple led to a witchcraft trial.

Just to get our weekend fun rolling, let's talk itching and scabbiness.

Uncovering Scottish Viking treasure.

The state of aqua archaeology.

Yellow fever: the proto-Ebola.

What is "masculinity?"  Depends on your era.

The latest on the Antikythera hunt.

Are these the oldest known cave paintings?

Ghost ships!  Treasure!  Tragedy!  Who could ask for anything more in a blog post?

Is this the first known recording of the human voice?

The history of wife-selling.

A Confederate soldier's gossipy coded diary.

Gods, barbarians, and Zerkon the Moorish Dwarf.  Dining with Attila the Hun sounds like something out of Douglas Adams.

Giving a whole new meaning to the term "ghostwriter."

Just for fun:  A delightful 18th century automaton clock.

Vikings: The first metrosexuals?

Waterloo, one of history's most famous "Oopsie!" moments.

A Danish 17th century Dr. Frankenstein?

A Chicago 19th century Dr. Frankenstein?

A princess does some illegal cycling.

The black cat of the Tombs.

Joan of Arc and the fairies.

Why becoming a 15th century royal necromancer was not always a great career move.

Because it's not often you get to come across the words "Ebola" "reincarnation" and "Buddhist" in the same headline.

If you want to rest in peace, it doesn't pay to tick off your undertaker.

Merry Andrew and the Ghost; or, Fun With Body-Snatchers!

19th century zombies.

The coded diplomacy of John Adams.

A wonderful assortment of medieval doodles.

The Case of the Haunted Kidneys.

Illustrations of 1893 London.

A witchcraft case from 1941.

Cleaning up the medieval era.

And finally...yes, I agree that this pretty much says it all:

We're done for this week. See you all on Monday, when I'll be turning book reviewer! In the meantime, here's a classic Welsh choral song:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

I have been given an alarming glimpse into my future, and it was published in the "Illustrated Police News" on October 1, 1870.

Yes, my friends, this will be me in fewer years than I care to think about.

A report has been forwarded to us from Newport, together with a sketch, from which the illustration in our front page has been engraved. The facts of the case are summarized as this: in a small dilapidated cottage on the outskirts of the above-named town, a Mrs. Joyton--an old lady of eccentric habits--has resided for the last four years, she herself being the only occupant of the tenement. She chose to lead a life of such strict seclusion, and was altogether so singular in her habits, that the neighbours very naturally came to the conclusion that she was a little deranged. Sometimes she would condescend to exchange a word or two with one or more of  those to whom she had become known, whilst at others she would pass them with an angry frown and a brusque manner; and when in this humour she would not vouchsafe a reply to any question.

To the surprise of everybody, for some reason or other, Mrs. Joyton was no longer to be seen in her accustomed haunts. Days paused over, and the general impression was that the poor old lady must be either dead or seriously ill. No answer had been returned to those who were bold enough to knock at the cottage door of the recluse. On Monday or last one neighbour more persistent than the rest gave a brief recital of the facts to the policeman on duty, who at once proceeded to the cottage and knocked most violently at the door. Its obstinate and eccentric occupant returned no answer; whereupon, his patience being exhausted, the policeman burst open the door.

Upon his entering the back room he discovered Mrs. Joyton in a bed, surrounded by a number of cats of every conceivable variety--black, white, brindled, tortoiseshell, and tabby were there assembled. The feline family seemed to be a very large one. One cat was on the bed with several kittens, others were on the shelf, the drawers, chairs, and ground. One pugnacious pussy flew at the policeman, who was a little disconcerted at the attack made by so strange an assailant. The old lady, who had been ill and kept her bed for some days, showered a torrent of abuse upon the head of the intruder, and commanded him to leave her apartment in a most imperious manner. He strove as best he could to pacify her by telling her that he had effected an entrance for the purpose of seeing if she needed advice or assistance, and wound up his discourse by offering to go for the parish doctor. This exasperated the invalid still more. She called the policeman an impudent fellow, and finished by throwing a basin at his head, whereupon the officer deemed it advisable to beat a retreat, and hastened at once to report proceedings at the station-house.

via British Newspaper Archive

We are glad to say, after much exhortation, the visiting clergyman of the district has succeeded in getting Mrs. Joyton in a better frame of mind. She has consented to see the doctor, and to have a nurse, if necessary; but will not brook any interference with her favourites. To be surrounded by her cats appears to be her greatest happiness.

Don't mess with us crazy cat ladies, buster. Unless you want a basin upside the head.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Joan Risch: Runaway Wife or Murder Victim?

The disappearance of Joan Nattras Risch is a disturbing story, no matter which view of the case you believe. Either a troubled woman fled her life in what was probably a futile search for happiness, or she was the victim of a terrible crime that will never be avenged.

In 1961, Risch lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She was married with two young children. On October 24 of that year, her husband Martin was away on a business trip in New York. (He was an executive in a paper company.) Neighbors described the couple--who had only lived in their home for six months--as "quiet and reserved," but showing no visible signs of any domestic trouble.  That morning, Mrs. Risch did some routine errands. Two tradesmen who visited the home later that day recalled that she seemed in good spirits.  Around mid-day she settled her two-year-old son David in for a nap, and sent her four-year-old daughter Lillian to visit at the home of a neighbor. Around 2 pm, a neighbor glimpsed Joan in the Risch driveway.  She appeared to be "walking fast or running and carrying something red."

Lillian arrived home about two hours later. She soon returned to the neighbor’s home, saying that her mother was gone, the baby was crying, and there was “red paint all over the kitchen."

What the child saw was not paint, but blood. It was type O, the same as Joan Risch's.  (Although it was never conclusively proved it was her blood.)  Investigators believed the blood came from a superficial wound which would not have been fatal.  The telephone receiver had been ripped from the wall, and a telephone directory lay open at the section showing emergency numbers.  (No such calls had been made.) A kitchen chair was overturned.  Risch's son was still safely upstairs in his crib, and the house was otherwise undisturbed.  Curiously, considering all the blood, there were no bloody footprints anywhere.  Unidentifiable bloody finger and palm prints were found on the wall.  There are conflicting reports about those prints.  Some accounts state that they were from an unknown intruder.  Others say that there was no record on file anywhere of Risch's fingerprints, making it impossible to say if they were hers, or some stranger's.

Drops of blood led from her son’s nursery to the kitchen, and then out to her car on the driveway. It was also noted that someone had made an attempt to mop up the blood with a pair of little David's overalls and some paper towels.  The trench coat Joan had worn earlier in the day was in a closet, but her cloth coat was missing.  Her purse and other belongings were also still in the house.

Neighbors later reported that an unfamiliar blue/gray sedan was parked in the Risch driveway around 3 pm, although investigators decided that what they had seen was an unmarked police car parked there some time later. (These witnesses, however, continued to insist the car had been there before police were summoned.) Later that day, other witnesses saw a disheveled woman generally matching Risch's description walking aimlessly along a nearby site where a highway was being constructed. Her legs were covered either in reddish mud or blood.  Unfortunately, no one stopped to talk to her.

That is the last we know of Joan Risch. It is anyone’s guess what happened to her or where she went. Her husband was questioned by police, but nothing was found to connect him to his wife’s disappearance, and he was quickly eliminated from suspicion. However, this left police with no possible suspects at all, and they began to publicly suggest she had left voluntarily, possibly "for medical treatment."  They pointed to the lack of evidence there had been an intruder, and declared that "certain key persons" in the case were not telling authorities all they knew.

One day early in November, an unknown woman called the Risch home at least twelve times.  The calls were answered by the missing woman's father-in-law, who reported that the caller refused to speak to him.  One of the Risch's neighbors said that on that same day, a "terribly excited" woman called her, complaining that she had been calling the Risch house, but had not been able to contact anyone she knew.  This neighbor claimed that she had gotten a similar call the day after Mrs. Risch disappeared.  This mystery-within-a-mystery was never solved, or at least publicly explained.

The investigation into her presumed kidnapping took an even more peculiar turn when it was learned that in the months prior to her vanishing, she had obtained from the library at least 25 books dealing with murder or disappearances. One book she checked out revolved around a woman who vanished, leaving nothing behind but blood stains that had been smeared with a towel. Although she had always been fond of mystery novels, many people begin to suspect that she had used these books, not as casual entertainment, but as how-to manuals to stage a “hoax” kidnapping that would leave her free to start a new life.

It’s dangerous to read too much into anyone’s taste in reading material—if I should ever, for any reason, catch the eye of law enforcement, I shudder to think what conclusions they may reach about me by examining my blogs—but there is more that gives this particular scenario some credibility. Friends said that Risch, who had a successful career in publishing before she gave it up to raise a family, was a naturally driven, ambitious woman who was frustrated as a homemaker. Although she seems to have been deeply devoted to her husband and children, they may not have been enough for her. But was this dissatisfaction enough to make Mrs. Risch--described as "a very intelligent and well controlled woman"--abandon them in such a cruel fashion?

Even before her marriage, the missing woman’s life had been deeply troubled. Her parents died in a suspicious house fire when she was only nine, leaving her to be raised by an aunt and uncle. According to some reports, she had been sexually assaulted as a child. Perhaps, it was suggested, she was so miserable being Joan Risch that she gave it all up in order to try her hand at being someone else altogether? Or perhaps, according to another school of thought, her present-day stresses and past traumas, combined with an injury from some fall in her kitchen, left her an amnesiac. Some believe she simply lost her memory and wandered blindly away, possibly—assuming the woman on the highway was Risch—making a fatal fall into the highway construction pit. To this day, there are those who believe Highway 128 is the grave site of Joan Risch. It has even been theorized that the sedan seen in Risch’s driveway was a doctor there to give Joan an abortion she wished to keep secret from her husband. Perhaps the operation went wrong and she began hemorrhaging, causing her to wander off in a state of shock?

Until the day he died in 2009, Martin Risch continued to express the belief that his wife was alive somewhere. For some years after her disappearance, he kept his old telephone number, just in case she called. He never remarried.

Or perhaps, to take the simplest, albeit grimmest, view of the case, the attractive 31-year-old was the random victim of a brutal fiend. After all, there was all that blood and those mysterious prints in her kitchen…

Friday, October 10, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company was hoping to break this week's news....

...But the cats beat us to it.

And here's our latest edition.  Read all about it!

What the hell is on Saturn?

Where the hell are Agatha Christie's diamonds?  Now we know!

Where the hell is Ned Kelly's skull?  Now we don't know!

What the hell happened to Catherine the Great's lost treasure?  Will we someday know?

Where the hell is the Thunderbird Photo?

What the hell were the giants of Delavan Lake?

What the hell was this bear doing in Central Park?

What the hell happened in Aarslev in 1600?

What the hell happened to this boy's corpse?

Watch out for the Winsham Witch!

Watch out for Poe's haunted pen!

Watch out for those poison duels!


Superhaunts, the map!

Disturbing photos of 19th century residents of insane asylums.

Oliver Cromwell's peripatetic head.

Predicting the Saxby Gale?

Defacing Beauty, 1785.

Australia's first serial killer.

An ancient cemetery on a small Scottish island.  Not a bad place to spend eternity, I think.

Bringing Tudor music back to life.

The Devil's miners.

An "upper servant" who got pregnant:  The harrowing tale of Sarah Drake.

The man who was buried twice.

Tippi Hedren and her lion roommate, 1971.

You've heard of "Half-hanged Smith?"  Well, meet "Double-hanged Swim."

Thomas Neill Cream, a poisoner who managed to combine homicidal mania with an almost comic eccentricity.

Visions of Julia.

Horse superstitions.

A Freedom of Information request about Noah's Ark releases a flood of The Weird.

George Anne Bellamy: The rise and fall of a Georgian actress.

The great explorer Isabella Bird.

Victorians go to the beach.

Another story for the Mystery Fires file.

If the world's most boring men turn out to be surprisingly interesting, well, where does that leave us?

Hospital overcrowding, then and now.

Alice Capet, who narrowly missed out on a crown.

The posh history of Grosvenor Square.

Rip, a canine hero of World War II.

Lewis Powell, John Wilkes Booth's mysterious accomplice.

Electricity and ancient Egypt.

The remarkable fairy paintings of a criminally insane artist.

How to fake history on the internet.  Do not try this at home.

Why Rudolf Hess' food is sitting in a Maryland basement.

Some Fun Facts about the guillotine.  Children's toy, bread-slicer, and more!

Mark Twain's burglar alarm.

Some lovely old examples of hair jewelry.

Perry Mason:  Satan's Minion.

A pirate in the Vatican.

Taking it with you.

I just plain freaking love this story:  Meet Bessie Watson, the nine-year-old Scottish bagpipe-playing suffragette.

Looking for a new career?

My new favorite lawyer.

Sexual healing in the Early Modern era.

Anne, England's Bohemian queen.

That's it for this week.  On Monday, we'll look at a housewife's enigmatic disappearance.  I'll be seeing you!