"...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, November 24, 2014

A Disappearance and a Family Scandal

Granville Garth

Granville W. Garth was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1863. In his adulthood, he moved to New York City. He prospered there, eventually becoming president of the Merchant’s National Bank. In 1893, he married 21-year-old Lillie McComb, a daughter of an extremely wealthy California family.  He was rich, respected, and powerful.

Then in December 1903, the world learned that his seemingly ideal existence had some very dark flaws. He became, we are told, “distressed” with his life. So “distressed” was Garth that the board of directors of his bank persuaded him to take a holiday. A sea cruise, that era’s panacea for all ills, physical and mental, was prescribed.

Garth boarded the steamer “Denver,” bound for Galveston, Texas. He never made it to his destination. The night of Christmas Day, the banker disappeared from his ship. His body was never recovered. Was it suicide? Accident? Murder? No one ever knew.

Adding to the mystery was the peculiar behavior of another passenger on the “Denver,” Thomas Lawson. The officers and crew of the ship were given to believe that Lawson “was in charge” of Garth during the voyage. He was said to be “the confidential man” for Blair & Co., a prominent Wall Street firm. They also told reporters that Lawson had taken possession of Garth’s luggage.

A reporter for the “Galveston Daily News” tracked Lawson down, and found that he was not inclined to be cooperative. Lawson “emphatically denied that he had any connection with Mr. Garth beyond having casually met him on board the boat.” He refused to say any more, snapping that he did not like newspaper publicity. Lawson denied knowing anything about Garth’s luggage. He had no idea where it was, but it was in a place where the police could not get it, “and, furthermore, to tell the police with his compliments to go to ____.”

A curious argument played out in the newspapers after Garth’s disappearance. The officers of the “Denver” disclaimed all blame for his presumed death by drowning, stating that the missing man was in Lawson’s care, so watching over him was no particular job of theirs. The “confidential man” continued to deny any connection to Garth, or responsibility for him. The men of the “Denver,” he shrugged, should have watched over their passenger better. The captain of the “Denver” commented that Garth seemed to want to avoid Lawson, preferring to spend as much time alone as possible. Fellow passengers later described Garth as “very nervous,” even fearful. One of these passengers, a Mr. Saalburg, told reporters that on the last night Garth was seen on board, the officers of the ship put up chains between the steerage and cabin compartments. When Garth heard the rattling of these chains, he cried out, “My God, they are going to put me in irons! My poor father!” The captain admitted the missing man showed signs of “mental aberration,” which took the form of a paranoid fear of “espionage” against him, but the banker gave no sign of suicidal intent.

The causes of this “aberration” remained unexplained. Garth’s bank was in an excellent financial shape. He was known as a prudent and highly capable businessman. It was presumed that he must have had personal troubles of some sort, but this was hotly denied by his family.

The newspapers broadly hinted at one of the banker’s “personal troubles.” James Jennings McComb, the father of Garth’s wife Lillie, had left a clause in his will virtually disinheriting Lillie’s sister Fannie if she married an artist named Louis Herzog. After McComb’s death, Fannie defiantly married Herzog anyway. Mrs. Herzog filed an appeal to have this clause in her father’s will overturned. The day before Garth sailed, the Court of Appeals ruled in her favor, deciding that the trustees of James McComb’s estate should allow Mrs. Herzog her full share of his money, which amounted to over two million dollars. Garth—who was one of the executors of McComb’s estate--had fought this effort to have the will overturned. It was reported that because of this squabble, as well as other unspecified family troubles, Lillie and Fannie were refusing to have any communication with anyone in the Garth family.

Even more explosively, a cashier at Garth’s bank, a Mr. Knowles, declared, “Mr. Garth died as the result of a family matter. Garth was a high-strung man with a strong regard for family honor. For two hundred years the Garth family honor had not had a blot upon it. Garth was a man who would make any personal sacrifice to save the family name from any possible dishonor. He died a victim to Southern chivalry—trying to shield his family name.”

Knowles refused to elaborate on this statement.

Things got even weirder. Four days after Garth vanished, the “New York Times” told its readers: “One feature of the case friends of the dead banker refused to discuss yesterday. That was the sudden apparent rise in fortune of Hubert Hartigan, formerly coachman for the Garth family, and now the proprietor of record of a stock farm and stables known as Erin Farm, three miles from Morristown, N.J., which he bought last fall from Theodore Schmalholz of 880 West End Avenue, paying for it with a certified check for about $30,000. Hartigan was formerly employed in a minor capacity in a riding academy in this city. Mrs. Garth employed his sister, Kathleen Hartigan, as maid to her two small daughters. The Hartigans suddenly left Mr. Garth’s employ several months ago and went to Ireland, returning about ten weeks ago with several blooded horses raised in that country, which are now at Erin Farm.”

$30,000 was worth around $790,000 in 2014 dollars. How did Hartigan suddenly go from impecunious coachman to filthy-rich horse breeder? No one knew.

No one believed working for the Garth family paid that well.

It was said that the handsome, “smooth-spoken” twenty-one-year-old Hartigan could provide insight into those mysterious “personal troubles” of his late employer, but he literally ran from inquiring reporters.

Hubert Hartigan, circa 1950.

Hartigan’s attorney (yes, the first thing the ex-coachman did after Garth’s disappearance was to lawyer up,) released a statement saying it was a “source of regret” that his client “should have been unjustifiably accused.” He went on to say that Hartigan and Garth “were always most friendly,” and that the late banker “always had the fullest confidence in Mr. Hartigan.” It was “unfortunate that a young man of Mr. Hartigan’s standing and ability should have been in any way brought before the public in the light which the reports have indicated.”

The attorney added that on his advice, Hartigan would not be giving any interviews.

At this same time, some of the crew of the “Denver” made public their belief that Garth had not fallen overboard, but had “concealed himself” in the ship. In related news, the Garth family vigorously discounted published reports that the missing banker had been seen alive and well in Galveston after the “Denver” arrived there from New York. Garth’s relatives were curiously eager to believe him dead.

A month after Garth vanished, his relatives offered a $10,000 reward for the return of his body, as well as certain papers they believed he carried on his person. They never specified what these papers were, and the reward was never collected.

There was no further significant news in the Garth Saga until April 1904, when it was discovered that Erin Farm was not Hartigan’s property after all. A deed was placed on file with the County Clerk conveying the property from Hartigan to Garth’s wife, Lillie. The deed was placed ten days before Garth disappeared, but was not executed until that April.

Hartigan told a reporter that he had never owned the farm. He had merely purchased it for Lillie Garth. When it was pointed out to him that he had always posed as the owner, he said only, “That was Mrs. Garth’s wish.” However, it was generally believed that Mrs. Garth had given Hartigan the money for the farm, and he only deeded it back to her because of the adverse publicity his purchase inspired.

Unfortunately, after this final blast of enigmatic strangeness from the Garth crowd, the story faded from the newspapers with none of the mysteries resolved. In October 1904, it was reported that Granville's elderly father established a scholarship in his son's name at his alma mater, Columbia University. Garth’s will was probated, leaving everything to his wife and two daughters. Lillie Garth already enjoyed a fortune of some four million dollars that she had inherited from her father.

The last we heard of Granville W. Garth was in July 1905, when his widow, who was living in Europe, got married...to the former coachman, Hubert Hartigan.

And suddenly, although the circumstances of Garth’s disappearance remain murky, the nature of his mysterious “personal problems” becomes a good deal clearer.

[A footnote: Hartigan and the former Mrs. Garth settled permanently in his native Ireland, where Hartigan became an immensely successful racehorse trainer. His clients included the Prince of Wales—who later briefly reigned as Edward VIII—and the Aga Khan. He had 13 Irish Classic winners, a record seven 1,000 Guineas; one 2,000 Guineas; three Oaks; and two St Legers. Lillie Garth Hartigan died in 1937. Hartigan died in 1955, surrounded by some of the greatest thoroughbreds in the world right to the end. Who says crime—or something that may have been uncomfortably close to it—does not pay?]

Friday, November 21, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

Strange Company would like to remind everyone that the unlikeliest souls can become the best of friends.

On to the Link Fest:

Who the hell murdered this mummy?

Who the hell murdered the Jamison family?

What the hell is happening on Mars?

What the hell are the Sajama Lines?

What the hell is this Russian screw?

What the hell crashed in Las Vegas in 1962?

What the hell flashed over the Urals?

Watch out for the Jake Bird Hex!

Are you Italian?  Watch out for those World Wars!

Are you Japanese?  Watch out for those suicidal station spirits!

Are you living in the Georgian Era?  Watch out for those cosmetics!

A look at the tragic death of champion racehorse Alydar.  (Although I still believe the "conspiracy theories" dismissed in this article are depressingly plausible.)

Remembering the death of the Man in the Mask.

The perfect museum for all of you who say, "Undine, your blog just isn't freaking weird enough for me."

The plot to kidnap Mary Pickford.

A Victorian quack turns blackmailer.

18th century instant soup.

The case of the poisoning witch.

A look at the most prominent of Mary Stuart's "Four Maries."

A Cheltenham poltergeist.

Giving a whole new meaning to the words "raising a family."

The nun who was a split personality.  Literally!

Napoleon Bonaparte: Freaking lousy cryptographer.

Flour of Brimstone: good for anything that ails you!

Puppy Water:  good for anything that ails you!

Stepping into dead men's shoes: The depressing world of the coroner's auction.

Exploring those weird Siberian craters.  Paging H.P. Lovecraft!

Male vanity, 1890s style.

How to build a terracotta army.

The two and four-legged denizens of Cat Alley.

The strange, sad life of Arbella Stuart.

The weirdness of West Dorset.

An attempt to understand Leonardo's brain.

Uncovering an Irish party stash.

An Iceland cemetery that also serves as Reykjavik's unofficial oldest museum.

A highly unfunny 19th century hoax.

Meanwhile, the Radio City Music Hall has made the Rockettes an all-cat lineup.

And there you have it for this week! See you on Monday, when I'll be covering a still-unsolved disappearance that unleashed a very public family scandal. In the meantime, here's some Joan Armatrading:

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

So, you assumed the epic conflict between Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stuart ended after the two queens went to their graves?


The "Illustrated Police News" told all in their January 23, 1897 issue:

Two great historical rivals--Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots--have lately reappeared in Paris, and Queen Elizabeth has been unfolding the story of her wrongs before a well-known police commissary.

It seems, says a correspondent to the Daily Graphic, that two Parisiennes--one a young and attractive widow, and another a single lady of riper years--went lately to a well-known medium living in one of the rich quarters of Paris. The wizard was unable to tell them much about their future--it would have been well for the elderly lady if she could have done so--but her revelations about their past were truly startling.

"You," she sail to the fair widow, "were once the hapless Queen of Scotland, and you "--she turned sternly to the alarmed spinster--"you are none other than the cruel Elizabeth of England."

Both ladies departed deeply impressed, and that same evening Mary Stuart borrowed a considerable sum from Elizabeth of England as damages due for imprisonment, ill-treatment, and beheading in another age and another body. This was not, however, the end. Mary Stuart next ran off with Elizabeth's nephew, in whom she professed to recognise the soul of Bothwell. Him she married, much to the distress of England's Queen, who objected strongly to receiving Mary Stuart into the bosom of her family, though the discovering of Bothwell's soul made matters historically correct.

The unfortunate Elizabeth was then exploited by both husband and wife, who claimed frequent sums of money on the ground of the ancient historic wrong. She could in no sense call her soul her own, and finally she appealed to the police. The result is that Mary, Bothwell and the medium have all disappeared, and the police much want to find them.

I have no love for any of the Tudors, including the Virgin Queen (there, I said it,) so this tale of Elizabeth's comeuppance--however belated--rather delighted me.  As the saying goes, Karma is a bitch.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Ghostly Excavations of Frederick Bligh Bond

In 1907, the Church of England hired architect Frederick Bligh Bond to oversee the excavations taking place at Glastonbury Abbey. Bond would never have gotten the job if the Church had known he was not only intensely interested in spiritualism, but determined to make a novel experiment: He intended to try using the spirit world as uncredited assistants. He had already conceived a theory that Glastonbury was built according to the principles of sacred geometry, and he intended to prove it. He hoped, as well, to find evidence of the long tradition linking Joseph of Arimathea to the Abbey’s location.

Bond believed in what he called "the permanence and indestructibility of Mind, Memory, and Personality or Character, together with the independence of Mind and its direct action upon Matter." In other words, he pictured a "cosmic reservoir" of all human memories and emotions. "Man as an intellectual personality with a subliminal psychic stratum involved deeply in his being, is thus necessarily linked with all other intelligent personalities through the 'continuum' of the subconscious Mind and it is only through this medium that he can obtain genuine recognition of any personality other than his own."

He and a friend of his named John Bartlett, who had shown some mediumistic abilities, held séances every night. Their goal was to use “automatic writing” to contact the past residents of the Abbey to get tips on where to dig.

They soon received the message, “All knowledge is eternal and is available to mental sympathy…I was not in sympathy with monks--I cannot find a monk yet.” Soon enough, however, one found them: “Gulielmus Monachus”—William the Monk.

Other monastic spirits soon made themselves not only willing, but rather sadly eager to share their memories of the Abbey, a site they had loved and still did not want to leave. As one “helper,” Johannes, wrote: “Why cling I to that which is not? It is I, and it is not I, butt parte of me which dwelleth in the past and is bound to that whych my carnal self loved and called ‘home’ these many years. Yet I, Johannes, amm of many partes, and ye better parte doeth other things…only that part which remembereth clingeth like memory to what it seeth yet.” This shifting group of spirits, who communicated in a hodgepodge of old and modern English and Latin, called themselves “The Watchers,” or “the Company of Avalon.” Some of the locations for buildings the “Watchers” provided were extraordinarily accurate, but the fact that Glastonbury had had different buildings built on the same locations throughout its history sometimes created a certain amount of confusion.

The excavation of the Abbey was proving to be a brilliant success. Whether it was through Bond’s immense knowledge of church architecture or the aid of the spirit fraternity—or some combination of both--his work was giving the world a hitherto unknown insight into the architecture of the site during its long history. Bond’s séances also—to his satisfaction, at least—corroborated his theories of how Glastonbury was built. He obtained automatic writing calling the Abbey “a message in ye stones. In ye foundations and ye distances be a mystery…” (The spirit of one monk, “Patraic,” also confirmed to the architect that Joseph of Arimathea had built a church at the site, which he depicted as a circle of round huts.) Bond was happy, the Anglican hierarchy was happy, presumably William and Johannes and the rest were, in their spectral way, happy too. Then, Bond made a fatal mistake: He became too honest. In 1919, he published a book, “The Gate of Remembrance,” giving full credit for his archaeological discoveries to his troop of ghostly guides.

"William the Monk's" "spirit-tracing" of part of the Abbey.

Bond believed his experiment with what is now known as “psychic archaeology” had proved the existence of the spiritual world. His employers believed he had only proved he was a madman. In 1922, they unceremoniously gave him the boot, little caring that his methods—whatever they might have been—had worked greatly to their advantage.

One of Bond's "reconstructions" of the Abbey.

Bond, undeterred, continued his psychic researches. Until his death in 1945, he developed many pioneering theories about the relationship between spiritual forces and the geometry and location of ancient buildings—concepts we are still struggling to understand today.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Weekend Link Dump

It's Friday! Grab a chair.

Assuming the cats haven't taken them all.

Here's This Week in Weird:

What the hell happened above Mars?

What the hell are these Russian Ooparts?

What the hell are the Moodus Noises?

What the hell is the Devil's Bible?

What the hell are these buried Victorian clothes?

What the hell flew over New Zealand in 1978?

What the hell caused the Great Blackout of 1965?

Watch out for those Irish fairies!

Watch out for Bigfoot!

Watch out--really watch out--for the Villisca Axe House!

Watch out for the Metroplex!

Watch out for the Witch of Wookey Hole!

Watch out for the Bath Game!

The link between Forteans and conspiracy theorists.

An ancient Norwegian saga gets some corroboration.

A poltergeist visits 19th century India.

Why you shouldn't count on visiting Mars any time soon.

Geoffrey Chaucer, wild and crazy guy.

"While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres..."

If Comet Music isn't your thing, how about some Fairy Music?

In modern times, we have Justin Bieber and One Direction.  In the early 19th century, they had Franz Liszt.  That's...uh...progress?

A comet gets its close-up.

The story of a Victorian Mission.

Fighting the flu in 1775.

A brief video about the too-adventurous-for-their-own-good Glen and Bessie Hyde.

The Hinterkaifeck murders:  One of the creepiest unsolved crimes on record.

Sergeant Reckless, equine war hero.

It says a lot when I come across a story that completely weirds me out:  Behold the thankfully-lost art of self-mummification.

More on how human history keeps getting pushed back...back...

The "Jesus was married" claim gets another spin around the park.

The book that kicked off a modern-day witch hunt.

Eclipse, one of the most famed Thoroughbreds in history.

Georgian mourning rules for the recently bereaved: only languishing smiles allowed, fake tears at the funeral are better than none, and widowers should wait a decent interval of three weeks before frolicking with mistresses.

When you couldn't walk through Limehouse without risking a tiger attack.

A 16th century painter who was enough to give Hieronymus Bosch the willies.

Was Early Modern "women's work" a man's world?

Deciphering Francis Bacon.

Did they or didn't they?  And is it any business of ours either way?

A two-part series on the friendship between Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant.

If you've been dying to read a scholarly analysis of ancient tampons, here you go.

If you've been dying to read a scholarly analysis of the legal ramifications of Rick Springfield's backside, here you go.

Lab-created ghosts.

An executed murderer doesn't know when to quit.

Not surprisingly, the French Revolution spawned a real Golden Age for ghosts.

The story of America's English First Lady.

Some historical advice about setting off fireworks.  Short answer: Don't.

Cropped out of history.

Who was Jack the Ripper?  Forget that.  Who was Mary Jane Kelly?

So, who's up for a little werewolf portraiture?

A look at one of the odder symbols of the Victorian Era, Punch Magazine.

Madame Roland, who died game.

One very cool--and original--musical instrument.

That's a wrap! See you all on Monday, when we'll be looking at an archaeologist and his very unusual team of assistants.

In the meantime, here's a 1970s weekend party song.

This does indeed explain a lot about the 1970s

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

There are many charming, heartwarming stories featuring gracious, openhanded hosts and grateful, affectionate houseguests. The sort of tales that make you feel good about humanity and foster a spirit of togetherness.

No, of course this isn't one of those stories. What kind of blog do you think I'm running here, anyway?

Meet Wilfred Harte. Most of us only dream of doing this to guests who wear out their welcome. Mr. Harte seized the day and struck a blow--not to mention a match--for overcrowded misanthropes everywhere. This account appeared in the "Gettysburg Times" on January 25, 1993:

A pensioner set fire to his home to get rid of four in-laws who had come for a three-day visit and stayed for three months. Wilfred Harte, 61, was found guilty of arson at his maisonette in Walworth, southeast London, and sentenced to serve three years in prison.

Before he set the fire, Harte made sure his dog, Tweek, was safe. He then told police, "It was a very good blaze. I felt quite euphoric."

The court was told that Harte, married for 20 years to his wife, Peggy, was furious at the behavior of unwanted guests who he said had taken over his home. "They never wanted to go to bed at night. They stayed up watching TV until 5 a.m. on a regular basis. My electric bills were doubled. I paid the rent, taxes and all the other expenses and felt it wasn't my home anymore. Finally, when it dawned on me that they might never leave, I decided to do something drastic."

As his wife and her relatives slept, Harte poured 5 gallons of petrol on the floors and set fire to it. The court was told that only through extraordinary good fortune was no one seriously injured.

Another story gave the additional information that to escape the blaze, Harte's stepson had to jump to safety with his pajamas on fire.  Don't bother trying to find photographs of that sight, you can be assured I already looked.

So Harte not only got a stretch in a nice, quiet cell well away from his relatives, he undoubtedly was never pestered by houseguests again.

He probably felt he came out pretty well from the business.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Gowrie Conspiracy and the Casket Letters

James VI and I

On August 5, 1600, His Royal Majesty King James VI of Scotland (otherwise known, in the memorable words of England‘s Queen Elizabeth, as "that false Scotch urchin,") embarked on a hunting trip in the park of Falkland. On this particular day, however, he wound up making a strange and lethal detour.

Early that morning, as the king and his party were setting out, twenty-year-old Alexander Ruthven, younger brother of the Earl of Gowrie, visited the monarch, evidently at James' private behest.  A few days before, James had secretly written to each of the Ruthven brothers. These letters subsequently disappeared.  By the time the messages became of great possible relevance, the Ruthvens were unable, and James unwilling, to describe them, so their contents have remained forever unknown.

There were no witnesses to this meeting between Ruthven and the king, so we only have James' later account of what was said between them.  According to the king, Alexander told him a very curious story.  The evening before, as he was going for a stroll through the woods, he met an odd, suspicious-looking man with a cloak wrapped around his face.  When Alexander examined him, he discovered the man was carrying an urn filled with foreign pieces of gold. Ruthven imprisoned the unnamed man in a remote chamber in Ruthven's home, Gowrie House.  When James showed little interest in Ruthven's tale, Alexander pointed out that as the mystery man informed him he meant to bury the gold, the hoard could technically be considered buried treasure, and thus the property of the Crown.  He also dropped ominous hints about how the gold was undoubtedly funds being smuggled into Scotland to aid Catholic plotters.

James, as a loyal Presbyterian, proposed to send word for local magistrates to detain the stranger.  Ruthven disagreed, asserting that the magistrates would pocket the riches themselves, thus depriving James of his fair share of the loot.  This was a matter that could be looked into only by James himself.

According to James' later testimony, he ignored Ruthven's peculiar tale and went out hunting.  Midway through the hunt, however, James claimed he had a change of heart.  He informed Ruthven that once the chase was over, he and his companions would ride to Gowrie House to investigate.

Later that day, when James and his entourage arrived at the Gowrie mansion, they discovered that their arrival seemed to be completely unexpected.  There was not even sufficient food on the premises to provide dinner for the Royal party, forcing the cook to hurriedly borrow provisions from the neighbors.

When Gowrie's steward asked Alexander the reason for the king's visit, he said that Robert Abercromby (the court saddler) had brought James to discuss the debt he owed the Ruthvens--a statement that James later had suppressed.  After dinner, the king took Alexander upstairs alone with him, where they went into a turreted room at the far corner of the gallery chamber.  There they remained quietly for some two and a half hours.

Meanwhile, the rest of the party went outside to idly lounge in the garden.  After a while, a servant of the earl's appeared, informing them that the king had left.  The startled group went to ask the porter at the gate if this was true, and received a negative response.  Gowrie announced he would go investigate the matter, soon returning to assure the group that James had indeed departed.  The Duke of Lennox, a member of James’ entourage, later testified that at this moment he saw James frantically leaning out a turret window yelling, “I am murdered! Treason! My lord Mar, help! help!” By the time Lennox, and others in the party, reached the prison chamber, they found that it was not James who was murdered; instead, Alexander Ruthven lay dead.

James' explanation was that he and Ruthven went up to the turret chamber to see the supposed gold.  On arrival, he found a man in armor waiting for them.  Ruthven suddenly took James prisoner, and announced that he meant to avenge James' 1584 execution of his father.

According to James, the king replied mildly, “Mr. Alexander, ye and I were very great together; and as touching your father’s death, man, I was but a minor. My Council might have done anything they pleased. And farther, man, albeit ye bereave me of my life, ye will not be King of Scotland; for I have both sons and daughters; and there are men in this town and friends that will not leave it unrevenged.”  Ruthven claimed he was not seeking James' life, but only wished for a promise from the king.  When asked what it was, he said his brother the earl would tell him.  James urged Ruthven to fetch him.  Before leaving, Ruthven made James promise not to cry for help while he was gone.

After Ruthven left, the armored man, who all this while had been standing docilely in a corner, told James that he himself was a prisoner there, and that he knew nothing of what was going on.

James urged his companion to open a window.  As he was doing so, Ruthven entered, and upon viewing the scene, exclaimed, "By God!  There is no remedy!"  He tried to bind James' hands.  The king managed to stick his head outside the window and shriek for help.

John Ramsay, one of James’ companions, ran up a small spiral staircase leading to the turret chamber, where--so he later said--he saw the king and Ruthven fighting. Ramsay came to his monarch’s defense by stabbing Ruthven and throwing the young man down the stairs. Hugh Herries and Thomas Erskine, two more of the king’s friends, finished Alexander off.  The dying young man managed to gasp out a declaration that he was not to blame for what had happened.

Meanwhile, Lord Gowrie wandered around in utter bewilderment, wailing, “What is the matter, I ken [know] nothing. Oh my God what can all this mean? What is wrong? I go to defend the king.” In a state of horror and confusion, he ran up the stairs to the turret room. There he was met by his brother’s murderers, who promptly killed him as well.  The alleged man in armor had mysteriously vanished, and was therefore unable to provide eyewitness testimony.  (A servant of Gowrie's named Andrew Henderson later claimed to have been this mystery man, but most contemporaries--as well as quite a few historians--believed he was lying, by order of the king.)

Jan Luyken's depiction of the Gowrie killings

Meanwhile, local residents were becoming more and more alarmed. Sensing that harm had come to their hereditary masters, the Ruthvens, a crowd of townspeople angrily surrounded Gowrie House, demanding to know what was happening. Instinctively feeling that whatever dirty business was afoot, their king was inevitably the culprit, they insisted that he show himself to them.

In their fury, some recalled the persistent stories alleging that Lord Darnley, the second husband of James' mother, Mary Queen of Scots, did not father James--that his sire was Mary's Italian secretary, David Rizzio. "Come down, thou son of Seigneur Davie!" voices from the crowd shouted. "Thou hast slain an honester man than thyself!"

Sensing that the crowd was not with him, James wisely opted to sneak out a back entrance, making his exit by boat via a river that ran behind the house. However, he left a number of his men behind with orders to search the castle from top to bottom. What he was looking for was never fully specified.

With his departure, the curtain descended on the highly confusing and very bloody incident known to history as the Gowrie Conspiracy. Nearly everything we "know" about this alleged kidnapping/attempted murder of the king and the subsequent killing of the Ruthvens comes from either James himself or his two main cohorts, Lennox and Ramsay, who were widely suspected of merely parroting a tale taught by their master. No matter. This was James' story of how the two Ruthvens wound up dead, patently bizarre though it may have been, and he was sticking to it. Possibly it was the only explanation he could think of that incorporated a number of disparate facts known to too many people to be covered up altogether.

The king soon realized that he was facing disconcerting skepticism about the account he gave detailing his providential escape from traitorous assassins. He responded by attempting to force his subjects to show a loyal (and unquestioning) gratitude for their monarch's survival. Upon returning to Edinburgh, he ordered his ministers to perform sermons giving thanks for his deliverance. Unfortunately, most of the men of God flatly refused to participate in the planned national rejoicing. They, along with all of Scotland, instead persisted in asking uncomfortable questions, most of them focused on their doubts about James' veracity, despite the king's increasingly peevish pleas for a bit more faith in the Royal word.

The strange affair at Gowrie House was quickly followed by an equally inexplicable persecution of the entire Ruthven clan.  The two dead Ruthvens were posthumously tried and convicted of treason.  The family's vast wealth was then seized by the Crown.  James, swearing that he would kill every male member of the family, chased the Ruthvens' two young brothers, Patrick and William, into England where the justifiably terrified boys went into hiding. When James became King of England three years later, his first act was to seize Patrick Ruthven and without formal charges or a trial, throw him into the Tower of London, where he was left to rot for nearly twenty years. The youngest boy, William, was more fortunate. He managed to flee abroad, where he changed his name and managed to live out his life in nervous obscurity.

As a final blow, James literally outlawed the use of the very name of Ruthven, an ordinance that was not revoked until many years after his death.

We know there was murder done that summer day in 1600. What continues to be debated is why it happened. If, as some historians accept, this was indeed some obscure plot of the Ruthvens to avenge the long-ago execution of their father by kidnapping or killing James, nothing except familial insanity could provide a good explanation for their methods.

An alternative explanation is that the Gowrie Conspiracy was an elaborate trap that James himself set for the Ruthvens--a lethal playlet with James himself as author, producer, stage manager, and male lead. The question remains: why?

Some have pointed out that the Earl of Gowrie had recently led the successful opposition to a tax meant to fund James' negotiations to obtain the English succession. (Reportedly, Gowrie himself felt he had a claim to the English crown.) While James was no doubt unhappy with this disobedience, that seems inadequate motivation to kill Gowrie and destroy his entire family. Other stories suggest a revenge motive straight from a paperback romance novel--that Alexander Ruthven may have been the lover of James' wife, Anne of Denmark. Not only is there no particle of evidence for such an allegation, but once Anne had fulfilled her duty as queen by giving James an heir, he promptly lost all interest in her and her activities.

Still other attempts to explain the downfall of the Ruthvens involve the reputation that the clan had long enjoyed for being deeply involved in sorcery. It was even said that their grandfather had employed a "necromantical jewel" in an effort to gain a mystical influence over Queen Mary.

It is at least interesting, and perhaps important, that James owed Gowrie some 80,000 pounds. The earl's father, at the time of his execution, had been Scotland's Treasurer. As the government was then in an even more chaotic and financially-strapped condition than was usual for the Scots, the Treasurer was compelled to meet the most basic State expenses out of his own pocket. Did James simply take a bloody way out of repaying this debt?

Or could the Gowrie Conspiracy somehow be connected to another of the era's great mysteries, the Casket Letters allegedly written by Mary Queen of Scots to the Earl of Bothwell?

During Mary's long captivity in Scotland and England, those controversial documents were kept in the possession of the successive Scottish regents (it was said that none of them ever left the precious letters out of his sight.) After the last of the regents, the Earl of Morton, was executed in 1581, the letters somehow landed in the possession of the Earl of Gowrie. (The father of the two Ruthvens killed in the Gowrie Conspiracy.)  When the English government heard Gowrie had the letters, Elizabeth's envoy, Robert Bowes, was given the job of obtaining the letters from him. Elizabeth desperately wanted them in her own possession, for, in Bowes' supremely enigmatic phrase, "the secrecy and benefit of the cause."

Bowes tried to steal the letters, but as that proved unsuccessful, he appealed directly to the earl. At first, Gowrie refused to even admit he had the letters. Bowes persisted--this was obviously something the English found of extreme importance--pointing out to Gowrie the jeopardy in his ownership of the letters. Mary herself, Bowes noted, was making determined efforts to get the letters into her own possession, "and that the means which she will make in this behalf shall be so great and effectual as these writings cannot be safely kept in that realm without dangerous offense to him that hath the custody thereof; neither shall he that is once known to have them be suffered to hold them in his hands."

Gowrie remained uncooperative, apparently undeterred by the uncomfortable fact that all previous owners of the letters had come to a bad end. He told Bowes that, "after he had found and seen the writings, that he might not make delivery of them without the privity of the king." This reply displeased the envoy, who commented that consulting James "should adventure great danger to the cause." Gowrie later confided to Bowes that James' friends had also made efforts to retrieve the letters, adding that he could do nothing with the papers without the king's consent. (It is not explained why he refused to simply give the letters to James.) Elizabeth's representative finally had no choice but to return to England empty-handed.

Just before Bowes' unsuccessful mission to obtain the letters, "for the secrecy and benefit of the cause," Gowrie and his political allies kidnapped the king. James was brought to one of Gowrie's residences, and remained virtually his prisoner for a year. This odd episode--known to history as the "Raid of Ruthven"--was apparently a coup aimed at ensuring James was controlled by Scottish Protestants, rather than French Catholics. It also indicates the hold Gowrie felt he had over the king. James eventually escaped, but was still sufficiently cowed by Gowrie to feel compelled to "forgive" him. The next year, 1584, however, James had Gowrie arrested and quickly executed.

The trail of clear, undisputed ownership of the letters ends with Gowrie. It has often been stated as fact by historians that after Gowrie's execution, James got possession of the letters and destroyed them. There is no evidence whatever for this supposition. Although it's possible James executed Gowrie in an effort to get the letters, he does not seem to have been successful. Although the letters have not been seen publicly since Gowrie's death, they apparently still existed for at least some time afterward, but more secretly. People had learned by then just how lethal their ownership could be.

The letters may have remained in possession of the Ruthven family until at least 1600. The Scottish historian John Hill Burton speculated that they were stored in Gowrie House. After James had Gowrie House searched--without, it seems, discovering the mysterious papers he had hoped to find--and had driven the surviving Ruthvens into ruin and exile, the whereabouts of the Casket Letters became impossible to document with any certainty.

Despite four hundred years of trying, no one has been able to find a universally satisfactory explanation, not only of the events at Gowrie House, but of James' seemingly inexplicable, unnecessary, and extremely unpopular savagery against all who bore the name of Ruthven. One can only echo the words of the elderly Scottish woman who once exclaimed, "It is a great comfort to think that at the Day of Judgment we shall know the whole truth about the Gowrie Conspiracy at last!"