"...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 30, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

There are many accounts of humans with bad consciences coming back as troubled apparitions. There are accounts of ghostly dogs. This story from the "Ipswich Journal," January 29, 1731, manages to combine the two:

Edinburgh, Jan. 16. Both city and country having been for several days past amused with different accounts of the late apparition in the shire of Perth; we have thought proper to publish the following narrative, carefully taken down from the missive of a gentleman of unexceptionable honour and veracity.

One William Sutor, aged about 37, a Farmer in Middle-Mause (belonging to the Laird of Balgown) near Craighall, being about the month of December 1728, in the fields with his servants near his own house, over heard at some distance, as it were, an uncommon shrieking and noise; and they following the voice, fancied they saw a dark grey colour'd dog, but as it was dark night, they concluded it was a fox, and accordingly were for setting on their dogs : But it was very observable, that not one of them would so much as point their heads that way.

About a month after, the said Sutor being occasionally in the same spot, and much about the same time of night, it appeared to him again, and in passing, touched him so smartly on the thigh, that he felt pain all that night.

In December 1729, it again cast up to him at the same place, and passed him at some distance.

In June 1730, it appeared to him as formerly. And it was now he began to judge it was something extraordinary.

On the last Monday of November 1730, about sky-setting, as he was coming from Drumlochy, this officious visiter pass'd him as formerly, and in passing, he distinctly heard it speak these words, Within 8 or 10 Days, do or die; and instantly disappeared, leaving him not a little perplexed.

Next morning he came to his brother James's House, and gave him a particular account of all that had happen'd. And that night, about Ten of the Clock, these two brothers having been visiting their sister at Glanballow, and returning home, stept a-side to see the remarkable spot; where they had no sooner arrived, than it appeared to William; who pointing his finger to it, desired his brother and a servant who was with them, to look to it: But neither of them could see any such thing.

Next Saturday evening, as William was at his sheep-folds, it came up to him, and audibly uttered these words. Come to the Spot of Ground within half an Hour. Whereupon he went home, and taking a sword and a staff in his hand, came to the ground, being at last determined to see the issue. He had scarce incircled himself with a line of circumvallation, when his troublesome familiar came up to him. He ask'd it, In the Name of God, who are you? It answered, I am David Sutor, George Sutor's brother. I killed a man more than 35 years ago, at a bush by east of the road as you go into the Isle. Mr. Sutor said to it, David Sutor was a man, and you appear as a dog. It answered, I killed him with a dog, and am made to speak out of the mouth of a dog: And I tell you to go bury these bones.

This coming to the ears of the minister of Blair, the Lairds of Glascloon and Rychalzie, &c. about 40 men, went together to the said Isle; but, after opening the ground in several places, found no bones.

On the 23d of December, about midnight, when William was in bed, it came to his door, and said, Come away. You will find the bones at the side of the withered bush., and there are but eight left; and told him at the same time, for a sign, that he would find the print of a cross impress'd on the ground.

Next day, William and his brother, with about 40 or 50 people who had conveen'd out of curiosity, came to the Isle, where they discovered the bush, and the cross by it; and upon digging the ground about a foot down, found the eight bones: All which they immediately wrapt in clean linnen, and being put in a coffin, with a mortcloth over it, were interr'd that evening, in the Church-yard of Blair, attended by above 100 persons.

N.B. Several people in that country remember to have seen this David Sutor; and that he listed a soldier and went abroad about 34 or 35 years ago.

Another contemporary account of this apparition added the information that the murder victim was believed to be a drover called Macgregor.  The ghost told William he had been selected for the job of bone-collector because William was the youngest relation David had at the time of the murder. [?!]

After this belated funeral, the canine spirit of David Sutor was presumably finally at rest. William certainly hoped so, at least.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Drowning of Mary Ashford: Did She Fall or Was She Pushed?

Mary Ashford

One pleasant May evening in 1817, twenty year old Mary Ashford set out to attend a dance in Erdington, England. She could never have guessed that this outing would result in her posthumously leaping from village anonymity to nationwide fame.

She even rewrote the law books.

Ashford dressed up for the party at the home of a friend, Hannah Cox, after which the two girls walked a distance of about two miles to a wayside inn known as Tyburn House, a favorite local spot for public dances. Mary was not often seen in this neighborhood, as she lived with an uncle in a nearby village named Langley Heath, where she acted as his housekeeper.  Ashford was a remarkably pretty girl with an outgoing, flirtatious personality, so she naturally was a popular dance partner with the young men in attendance. The most persistent of her admirers that night was twenty-four year old Abraham Thornton. His father was a landholder, which, in this rural area, placed him a distinct social cut above most of his neighbors.

The new acquaintance between the pair later became a subject of intense controversy. According to one witness, John Cooke, when Thornton first spotted the beautiful newcomer, he asked who she was. When told she was “Ashford’s daughter,” Cooke said Thornton crudely boasted that he had known—in every sense of the word—the girl’s sister, and intended to do the same with Mary. No one else claimed to have overheard this remark, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Cooke was untruthful.

In any case, it is unquestionable that Ashford and Thornton immediately hit it off. They spent much of the night dancing together, with the girl showing every sign of enjoying his attentions. Around eleven o’clock, Cox told her friend she wanted to go home. Ashford agreed to join her outside in a few minutes. Cox and a young man named Benjamin Carter sat outside the inn for about half an hour. Then, finally, Ashford and Thornton emerged, and the quartet set out on the dark country road. After a short distance, Carter left the others and returned to the dance.



The three young people walked on until they came to a crossroads. One road led to Cox’s house, the other to the home of Ashford’s grandfather. At this point, Mary suddenly announced that she would spend the night with this relative. Cox probably realized this was just a ploy to get her out of the way, but she agreed. She finished her walk home alone.

Around four the next morning, Ashford arrived at Cox’s house to change out of her party clothes and pick up some items she had bought the previous day. According to Cox, she seemed tired, but in excellent spirits. For whatever reason, Ashford left still wearing her white dancing shoes, carrying her walking boots in a bundle along with her packages.

Less than two hours later, a laborer named George Jackson was walking by Penn’s Mill Lane, a road leading to Ashford’s home. The fields near the lane contained several water-filled pits. Near the edge of one of them, Jackson found some packages, a woman’s hat, and a pair of dainty white shoes, one of which had blood stains. Fearing the worst, he sent for men to drag the pool.

These fears were soon confirmed. In this pit was found the body of Mary Ashford. An autopsy later established that she had drowned, and that she had lost her virginity not long before her death.

In a nearby field some men found what they believed were the footprints of a man and a woman. These amateur sleuths deduced that they had been running, with the woman trying to evade a pursuer. At the edge of the fatal pit was found a similar male shoeprint. All this led them to the conclusion that Ashford had been raped and then thrown into the pool to die. As another young woman had suffered this exact fate only a year before and a dozen miles away (a shepherd had been hanged for the crime,) it seemed a logical surmise. It seemed equally logical to presume that Ashford’s attacker was her very ardent new admirer, Abraham Thornton.

When questioned, Thornton readily admitted that after they parted ways with Cox, he and Ashford spent several hours in the dark roadside fields, making love—with, he insisted, her full consent. Shortly before four o’clock, he escorted her part of the way to Cox’s house.  He waited for her to leave Hannah's, but after a short while passed without seeing her, he returned home. He maintained that this was the last time he saw the girl. He gave his exact route, and named several people who had seen him walking to his home alone.  He gave this story without hesitation, and never wavered from it.

Few people believed him. Reading between the lines, it seems Thornton must have had a questionable reputation even before Ashford's death, because his fellow villagers had no problem assuming he was quite capable of rape and murder.

This belief soon spread throughout England. Ashford and her sad fate became immortalized in sermons, plays, pamphlets, and ballads. A minister was inspired to give the dead girl a gravestone complete with an inscription meant “as a warning to Female Virtue, and a humble monument to Female Chastity.” The Reverend Doctor blamed Ashford’s death on her unwise decision to attend “a Scene of Amusement without proper protection.” The monument also included a poem he had composed for the occasion (“Mary! the Wretch who thee remorseless slew/Avenging wrath, which sleeps not, will pursue.”)

Morning Post, Nov. 7, 1818


At Thornton’s trial that August, the prosecution stated that when Ashford, contrary to his expectations, refused to surrender her virtue, he became enraged and resolved to take her by force. He waited for her to leave Hannah Cox’s home, then chased her by Penn’s Mill Lane, caught her, raped her, and then hurled her into the nearby pool. The defense argument was equally simple: Thornton could not have killed her because he was a long distance away when she died. His lawyers presented no less than eight witnesses who claimed to have seen him heading home during the time when Ashford must have drowned. Nothing was found to disprove their stories. A John Hompridge stated that when he was returning home from the dance, at about three am, he saw Thornton and a girl sitting on a stile together.  He could not tell who Thornton's companion was, as she kept her head down in an obvious effort to avoid identification, but she showed no signs of fear or distress.  Several others testified to seeing Mary walking by herself to and from Cox’s house between three and four thirty in the morning. One of these witnesses saw her—still quite alone—within five hundred yards of the place where she died.

Map of the area where Ashford died, as presented at Thornton's trial.
Chester Chronicle, Nov. 7, 1817


Even the fact that the white shoes and white cotton stockings Ashford wore to the dance had spots of blood wound up being a point in Thornton’s favor. The black woolen stockings into which she had changed at Hannah Cox’s house, and that she was still wearing when she died, had no blood on them. It was reasonable to conclude that the bleeding took place when she lost her virginity the previous night (she was also menstruating at the time of her death.) If she had relations with Thornton before she returned to Cox’s house, this refuted the prosecution’s scenario of Thornton lying in wait to ambush her on her trip home.

In short, the case against Thornton, once seen as so ironclad, proved to be a textbook example of “reasonable doubt.” Accordingly, the jury, after a deliberation of six minutes, pronounced him “not guilty.”

Unfortunately for Thornton, public opinion failed to see this acquittal as any sort of exoneration. Someone had abused and murdered this young girl, vox populi thundered, and that someone must have been Abraham Thornton. And everyone was determined that somehow he should pay for her death.

Some legal eagle recalled an ancient custom known as “appeal of murder,” where the heirs of a homicide victim could bring their own charges against a suspect and subject them to a new trial. Accordingly, Ashford’s brother William stepped forward and had Thornton re-arrested.

Thornton’s accusers then received a nasty little surprise. Under this never-repealed old law, “appeal of murder” could only be answered by “trial by combat.” In other words, there was nothing for it but to have Thornton and William Ashford fight it out until night began to fall. At that point, if Thornton was too weak to keep fighting, he would be hanged on the spot. On the other hand, if he killed Ashford, or at least managed to stay on his feet until after sunset, he would be acquitted.

It was this quirk in the law that turned the tragedy into farce. Thornton was a strong, well-built, pugnacious young man. Brother William, on the other hand, was a meek, weedy youth conspicuously lacking in anything resembling brawn. When Thornton, as the law demanded, threw a pair of gauntlets down at Ashford’s feet and announced his willingness to defend his innocence “with my body,” William prudently declined to pick them up. Thornton again won his freedom. As he still found himself an extremely unpopular man, he moved to America, where he married and lived a quiet and prosperous life until his death in 1860.

This rather embarrassing debacle inspired the House of Commons to abolish—a few hundred years too late—trial by combat.

So, how did Mary Ashford come to her death? Although we’ll never know for sure, the evidence suggests that Thornton was not guilty of anything more than being a rather unpleasant young man with an eye for a pretty girl. Could someone else have attacked Ashford? If so, who could have had the opportunity to commit the evil deed? Suicide can probably be ruled out, considering the testimony that she was in a cheerful mood the morning of her death.

Sir John Hall, who edited the Thornton case for the “Notable British Trials” series, suggested a simple and highly plausible theory. Noting the fact that Ashford's body was shoeless when it was removed from the pit, and that her bonnet was removed and placed with her bundle near the bank, he suggested that on her way home, Ashford stopped by the pool to rest, change into her walking boots, and wash off some of the blood on her legs and feet. After she removed her dancing shoes, the girl, no doubt exhausted after a sleepless and very busy night, lost her balance on the steep, slippery edge of the pit and fell helplessly into the water.

If Hall was correct, all that fuss was made over a tragic, but utterly ordinary accident.

[A footnote: There is a chilling coincidence connected to the Ashford case. One hundred and fifty-seven years to the day after Mary’s death, the body of a young woman named Barbara Forrest was found just a few hundred yards away from the spot where Ashford drowned. Forrest was, like her early counterpart, twenty years old. She had been raped and strangled. The similarities did not end there. The two girls had the same birthday, both had visited a friend the evening before in order to change clothes for a dance party, and the chief suspect in Forrest’s death was named Michael Thornton. Like Abraham, this modern-day Thornton was tried but acquitted. Forrest’s death, like Ashford’s, has remained a mystery.]

Friday, July 25, 2014

Weekend Link Dump


Enjoy the summer! Have a ball!


Or, in the case of the cats, be a ball.

On to this week's Link Smorgasbord:

Who the hell was The Ulsterman?

What the hell are the Takenouchi Manuscripts?

What the hell are these Siberian...ah, hell, forget it, they're signs we're all doomed.

Watch out for those slithering skin purses!

Watch out for those hoodoo houses!

Watch out for those sexy snuffboxes!

Watch out for those Women in Black!

Watch out for those Annecy Dead Heads!

Watch out for those ghostly cricket fans!

Yorkshire is really booming!

The sad life of the Duchess of Wellington.

Padre Padilla, one corpse who refused to rest in peace.

From the "What the bloody freaking hell?!" file, Civil War subcategory.  Meet George Pickett, female Confederate General.

From the "What the bloody freaking hell?!" file, World War II subcategory.  Meet Adolf Hitler at home.  He loves people.  And they love him.

What really sank the Titanic?  Why, the Mummy's Curse, of course!

Life in 19th century Irish courtrooms.

How to transform yourself into a Georgian beauty:  all you need is white lead, mouse hair, and horse manure...

...Not to mention the cork rumps and tin stomachs!

Historical invective, Lord Nelson Department.

The curious case of the woman who spontaneously spoke an extinct form of a language.

The luckiest villages in Britain.  They number thirteen, naturally.

You might assume that someone named Bampfylde Moore Carew would have an interesting life.  You would be right.

You might assume that someone named Richard Rich would have a rather boring life.  You would be very wrong.

The Case of the Ashford Heiress.

We have met the aliens, and they are us?

The science of out-of-body experiences.

A look at Nessie's lesser-known cousin.

Douglass Dumbrille, who made good by being bad.

A look at one of my favorite fictional men, the illustrious Psmith.

Beating the heat in 1899.

A look at Victorian street traders.

Dead giraffes, robot hands, cement eating creatures and a kangamouse:  Why you don't want to go swimming in New York City.

New revelations about Denmark's Bog Bodies.

Resurrecting a 5,000 year old stone carving.

Robots, humans, and the uncanny valley.

The mysteries of medieval church graffiti.

Frances Flower, who stood tall in Nottinghamshire.

DIY Eden on a remote island.

The "Perfect Man" of the 1890s was far from being perfect, after all.

Revolutionary marriages that really went to war.

Are these the world's oldest footprints?

A Different Drummer, 1476.

Beach Blanket Alien.

Urban VIII, a Pope whose prayers utilized a little something extra.

And, finally, let's wrap this up with my favorite Warren Zevon song, about some strange company in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel:



I'm outta here. See you all next week, with the story of a scandalous early 19th century murder...if it was a murder at all.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Newspaper Clipping(s) of the Day, Taking the "Fun" Out of "Funeral" Edition

Illustrated Police News, 1893 via British Newspaper Archive


We tend to think of funerals as a place to say goodbye to corpses, not to create a fresh batch of them. However, anyone who has done even the quickest browse through old newspapers soon realizes that your typical funeral service is more like a war zone.

Don't believe me? Here is a mere sample of what I mean:

San Francisco Call, November 16, 1899


From the "Western Morning News," Oct. 27, 1948:
Five people were killed at a funeral yesterday when a thunderbolt struck a church near Venice. They were standing near the coffin. The church was badly damaged.

Western Australian, February 22, 1950

Yet another case of a funeral rudely interrupted by a death was reported in the "Davenport Leader" on November 27, 1900:
New Haven, Conn., Nov. 26.--With hands uplifted as she was about to deliver a prayer at the grave of Mrs. Emily Parker, a dead sister, Mrs. Sarah Grumley, Chaplain of Meriden Chapter, Order of the Eastern Star, was stricken dead.

Mrs. Grumley was seventy years old and a charter member of the chapter. She was apparently in good health when she started for the grave.

When she tottered and fell with the words of the ritual upon her lips there was consternation among the chapter members at the grave. Several fainted and the funeral service was left unfinished. At the funeral of Mrs. Grumley the members of the chapter will complete the service interrupted at Mrs. Parker's grave.

From the "Derby Telegraph," July 15, 1887:
On Monday the funeral of a negress was being conducted in a graveyard at Mount Pleasant, sixty miles south of Nashville, Tennessee, when a storm came on and the crowd ran for shelter under the trees. Nine persons stood under a large oak, which the lightning struck, killing every one instantly, including three clergymen and two sisters of the girl who had been buried.

If the lightning and the grenades don't get you, the church floor will. The "Manchester Courier," March 1, 1905:
Eleven persons were killed and forty injured by the collapse of a floor at Fleet-street African Methodist Church at Brooklyn.

They had assembled to attend a funeral of the late organist. The body and chief mourners had just arrived, and were about to enter the building when the accident occurred. It was due to rotten beams.

The church was built sixty years ago.

Some of the injured jumped out of the windows.

Sometimes, rather than Acts of God or the like, what you need to watch out for is a good old-fashioned riot. From the "Argyle Liberal and District Recorder" for March 13, 1906:



Then there was this story from the "Evening Telegraph," July 18, 1936:

Three persons were killed and many seriously wounded in a quarrel which broke out over the dead body of a woman at Pernambuco, Brazil.

Just before the body was to be buried the doctor announced that he proposed to perform an autopsy.

Members of the woman's family strongly opposed this proposal, and the parties came to blows.

Gotta watch out for those Sextons:

Los Angeles Herald, March 28, 1890

And your fellow mourners:

The "Evening Telegraph," August 15, 1866:
Baltimore, August 15.--A terrible tragedy occurred last Sunday, in Queen Anne's county, Maryland, at a place called "Hatton's When and Where." It seems that a man named Cooper, a Rebel, shot and killed two men, named James F. Johnson and Josiah Ellingsworth. Both died instantly.

The affair took place at a funeral, and jealousy is the alleged cause. All of the young men named were of the aristocracy of the region, and all were Seccessionists.


And the undertakers!

Launceston Examiner, August 8, 1927


Tombstones really need to be reclassified as dangerous deadly weapons.

Queensland Times, October 27, 1904

From the "Democratic Watchman," November 15, 1866:
The Kingston "News" tells of a singular death which occurred in Belleville, on Friday. A little girl, aged ten, daughter of a widow Brennan, while in a grave-yard, was killed by a gravestone falling over upon her.
The "Edinburgh News," May 9, 1911:
The Central News Appleby correspondent telegraphs: The lad, Arthur Holmes, who pulled a headstone upon himself while climbing for a bird's nest in Longmarton Churchyard on Sunday, died this morning at his parents' residence at Longmarton. His skull was broken right across the base.

The "Evening Telegraph," June 3, 1913:
While an interment was taking place in Greenside Cemetery, Alloa, a boy, eight years of age, named Allan Henney, the adopted son of William Henney, wool-sorter, was standing upon the plinth of a grave, when the stone collapsed and fell upon him, Several of the mourners assisted in extricating the boy from beneath the stone, and it was found that in addition to his left leg having been broken in two places he was internally injured. He was removed to the County Accidents Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries.

From the "Manchester Courier," October 5, 1901:
The death of an unknown boy was reported to the Manchester City Coroner, yesterday, which was discovered on Thursday under queer circumstances. About five o'clock a scullery-maid, employed at St. Patrick's Convent, Livesey-street, Oldham-road, noticed a tombstone had fallen down in the old cemetery. She went to ascertain the cause, and was horrified to find it resting on the right arm, shoulder, and right side of the face of a boy aged about 12 years, who was quite dead. It is presumed that the boy was climbing over the wall into the cemetery--a common practice--and caught hold of the tombstone, which is near the wall, and which must have collapsed.

However, if you really want to talk death traps--both figuratively and literally--let's talk coffins. This following image from the November 9, 1872 "Illustrated Police News" depicting the sad-but-ludicrous death of a man named Henry Taylor who attended just one funeral too many has become justly famous on the internet. However, his tragic fate was just one of many. Go too near a coffin, and you may well wind up in one:


The "Anaconda Standard," April 5, 1912:
San Francisco. April 4--Whether a pallbearer who was fatally crushed beneath the coffin at a funeral service died accidentally within the meaning of the terms of an insurance policy is the question to be solved by the superior court here in a suit filed today. The suit was brought by Mrs. Rose Rock, widow of Joseph F. Rock, who died shortly after he had been crushed beneath the falling coffin of his friend, James Murphy, June 30 last.

The "Columbus Herald," February 7, 1894:
Birmingham, Ala., Feb. 7.--Tuesday afternoon at Double Springs, near here, the body of Mrs. Amanda Harris was being lowered into the grave, Geo. Gillas, one of the pallbearers, had hold of a strap when it broke, throwing him into the grave. As he fell his head was pinioned between the head of the coffin and the grave wall. The coffin box and corpse was heavy and before he could be extricated his head was crushed and death was almost instantaneous.


Billings Gazette, November 3, 1905



Sacramento Union, November 23, 1896
You don't even need to be at a funeral to fall prey to the deadly coffins. The "Cumberland Evening Times," November 19, 1912:
Raleigh, N.C., Nov. 19.--Caught in the collapse of a casket display case, George Newton, aged 70, was killed yesterday in a local undertaking establishment, to which he had gone to buy a coffin for the burial of his wife, who had died a few hours before.

From the "Medicine Hat News," January 11, 1934:
The victim of a falling coffin, the French aviation pilot Sergeant Girardin is dead at Boulay, near Metz. He was riding uphill in a hearse, with the corpse of an old man. The hearse hit a tree, the rear door flew open and the coffin fell out, landing on the flier.

The "Oakland Tribune," August 17, 1934:
A coffin killed Daniel Kilbury, 61, of Alhambra. He died last night of injuries suffered when a casket he was unloading from a truck slipped and crushed him to the pavement.

The "Stevens Point Journal," September 7, 1928:
It was a coffin that killed Stanley Gates.

Driving a truck for an undertakers' supply company, Gates was thrown to the ground when his machine and another collided yesterday. A cement coffin box, jarred from his truck, crushed him to death.

By this point in our post, you're thinking: "All right, I'll skip the funeral and simply say farewell to the dearly departed at their wake. No problem!"

Allow me a derisive snort while I present an item from the "Illustrated Police News," June 29,1867:
A Dublin paper states that a sad accident has occurred in Youghal, involving the loss of three lives and the entire destruction of the dead body of a woman, which was burned to ashes. A man who, in company with two neighbouring women, had sat for two nights by the corpse of his sister, "waking" it, on the third night sat up to a late hour, but he appears with them to have succumbed to weariness, and fallen into a deep sleep. From that slumber they never awakened, at least one would hope so, for if the sleep were broken it was only to find death imminent, and after a brief but fearful anguish to close their eyes again in death. Wayfarers returning late saw lights burning in the cottage at an advanced hour of the night. In the morning the neighbours came for the funeral, and found the house a heap of smouldering ruins. At some time in the night fire had broken out, and clasping the quick and the dead in a fiery embrace, had reduced the dwelling and all it contained to smoking ashes.


It seems that the words heard most often at a wake are not, "Rest in peace," but "Look out below!" From the "Sheffield Independent," August 15, 1874:
An accident at a wake in Dublin again demonstrates the dangerous folly of these grim festivities, which are still popular among the lower classes in Ireland. The floor of a room fell, in which thirty persons were assembled round the body of a child only two months old, and ten persons were so seriously injured in consequence that they were removed to the hospital, where they lie, some with broken legs and arms. There has been no death.

The "Western Mail," February 26, 1877:
An unusual event took place in Cardiff at about twelve o'clock on Sunday night. A front room in Ellen-street, Newtown, was the scene of a wake, the corpse being that of a little boy, whose parents resided on the premises. At the time just mentioned the room was full of a number of sympathetic friends, who, agreeably with the custom on such occasions, were occupying themselves with story-telling. Suddenly, just as the father of the deceased had given expression to the words "I'll tell the next tale," an inexplicable noise, such as might be produced by the cracking of joists, was heard, and without further warning the entire company found themselves precipitated into a cellar beneath, the candles, coffin, and corpse being tumbled together among the people. The confusion was something extraordinary, and it took some time for the melancholy party to grope their way to the upper part of the building fortunately none were hurt, and the corpse having been removed to another room, it was decided to adjourn the wake.

The "Worcester Journal," September 27, 1856:
On Friday night an accident occurred at a wake in Killalala, which was very nearly ended fatally. During the night the floor of an upper room in which the body was laid out and the people assembled, gave way, and fell with its living weight into a cellar beneath. A scene of terrible confusion ensued.

The "Dundee Courier," September 25, 1869:
An accident of most alarming occurred in a dwelling house in Salford on Wednesday evening. The house is of a construction similar to the greater number of the houses in back streets, which are known as single houses, consisting only of a ground floor with a large cellar underneath, and an apartment above. The ground floor in the house in question was occupied by Mrs. Rosannah Murray. Wednesday evening sixteen or seventeen people (men, women, and children) met in this house between seven and eight o'clock, for the purpose of "waking the body" of Mrs Murray's daughter, who had died some time previous. The people had not been long in the house when the floor, which consisted of stone flags, supported by couplings, or bars of timber, suddenly gave way, and fell with a tremendous crash into the cellar, a distance of seven or eight feet. The corpse, the people in the house, and all the furniture were precipitated with it. The furniture, of course, was much damaged, but, fortunately, though many of the people, especially the women, were greatly frightened and put into a state of great excitement, no bodily injuries of a serious nature were sustained. The cause assigned for the accident is that the bars which supported the floor were completely rotten.

The "Edinburgh Evening News," November 23, 1883:
While a wake was proceeding in a cottage in Dublin on the bodies a woman and a child, the flooring gave way and the assembled party were precipitated into a disused well. The people and the bodies were extricated with considerable difficulty, but fortunately no person was seriously injured.

Well, there you have it. If, after reading all this, you still persist in paying your last respects in person, don't blame me if you wind up electrocuted, shot, crushed, incinerated or beaten for your pains.

On the bright side: If you think these stories were horrifying, just wait until I chronicle what happens at those grim sinkholes of death and devastation known as wedding parties.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Vanished Silk King



James Thompson gained worldwide fame and enormous wealth by becoming the “Silk King” of Thailand. When he went out for a walk on a warm April day and was never seen again, he became a legend.

Thompson led a quiet, privileged life in America until his life changed during World War Two. As a member of the Office of Strategic Services, he headed a unit sent to Thailand with the intention of helping to overthrow the country’s pro-Japan government. However, before he and his men reached the country, they learned of the Japanese surrender. His task in Thailand now was to establish an American consulate.

Thompson fell hopelessly in love with the country at first sight, and he quickly determined that it would be his new permanent home. After his discharge from the OSS, he helped found a hotel in Bangkok, the Oriental. The real focus of his attentions, though, became Thailand’s dormant silk industry. He started the Thai Silk Company, convinced he could simultaneously rescue a once-vital part of his adopted land’s culture and make himself a great deal of money.

He was right. He focused on Thailand’s tourists, showing these visitors his brightly colored, and, to foreign eyes, irresistibly exotic fabrics. His silks quickly became an international sensation, and Thompson gained worldwide fame. The charming, affable Silk King became something of a local attraction, the host to visiting politicians, royals, celebrities, and the rest of the traveling jet-set. He was by far the most well-known American expatriate in Asia.

By 1967, however, Thompson was tired and in poor health. He went on holiday in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, a popular resort spot. He stayed with Dr. Ling Tien G and his wife Helen, who had been his hosts on previous visits. It was not an ideal vacation, however. He had been uncharacteristically preoccupied and bad-tempered before and during the journey to Malaysia, and the idyllic surroundings did not appear to improve his mood. Unfortunately, he kept whatever was troubling him to himself.

On Easter Sunday, 1967, his foul mood was especially apparent to the Lings and Connie Mangskau, a friend who had accompanied him to Malaysia. All that day, he was clearly agitated about something, leaving his companions both puzzled and worried.

That afternoon, as was the custom in these tropical areas, Mangskau and the Lings went to their rooms for a siesta before dinnertime. Thompson remained on the veranda, still silently wrestling with his mysterious troubles. A short time later, Mrs. Ling heard his footsteps walking down the driveway.

Later that afternoon, a cook at the nearby Lutheran Mission saw Thompson strolling through the bungalow’s garden. Around the same time, a servant at the Overseas Missionary Fellowship observed Thompson standing on a plateau facing the estate. He was next spotted in the vicinity of the Eastern Hotel, walking on a path leading to the golf course. It was the last time anyone is known for certain to have set eyes on James Thompson.

The bungalow where James Thompson was staying when he disappeared, via Wikipedia.


When Thompson’s housemates eventually emerged from their rooms, they saw no sign of him. He was fond of going off on walks by himself, so they thought little of his absence at first. When he did not return by evening, however, they became concerned enough to go to the police.

The search for Thompson began the next morning, and wound up becoming the largest manhunt in the country’s history. It seemed like everyone in Malaysia was prowling the area for some sign of the missing Silk King.

No sign was ever found. Everyone’s first assumptions about his disappearance—that he had either fallen into a ravine or wound up the loser in an encounter with a tiger—were soon abandoned when they failed to discover any trace of his body, or even of a struggle. It seemed equally unlikely that he had left voluntarily. Thompson chain-smoked and often had to take pills for a painful gallstone disorder. He left both his cigarettes and his medication at the cottage, indicating that he was not planning any long absence. The question of what did happen to him remained and still remains a mystery.

Every high-profile disappearance inspires wild theorizing, but the Thompson case brought out a particularly rich and varied crop. Some think he was kidnapped, pointing to unconfirmed reports that on the day he vanished, several unfamiliar cars was seen in the normally extremely quiet area around his cottage. According to some of these accounts, Thompson was seen in one of them.  However, foreigners were not usually targeted by kidnappers, and no ransom note was ever sent. Neither did anyone try to claim the reward offered for information about Thompson’s disappearance.

A variation of the kidnapping theory is that he was taken by Communists wanting to coerce him into denouncing America’s involvement in Vietnam, but no evidence for that rather exotic proposal has ever surfaced. Psychic Peter Hurkos declared that Thompson was the prisoner of Communist terrorists in Cambodia. A mission actually went into Cambodia to investigate, but found no trace of Thompson.

Or, others mused, did he actually defect to the Communists? This was not as outlandish a notion as one might think. Thompson sympathized with the Indochinese nationalists and opposed America’s Vietnam policy. He often met with Indochinese Communists and was rumored to be friends with Ho Chi Minh. He was known to be on bad terms with the current Thai government, leading some to wonder if he had joined up with the Communists in order to help overthrow the regime. Or, then again, was he a double agent secretly working against the Communists?

Did he stage his own disappearance?  A businessman named Edward Pollitz, who knew Thompson personally, claimed that shortly after Thompson vanished, he saw the Silk King leave a hotel in Tahiti.  Thompson then got in a taxi and left for parts unknown.  If this sighting is accurate, it would indicate that Thompson did leave voluntarily, but does nothing to explain why.

Or did the Chinese take him—voluntarily or not--to their country to manage their silk industry?

Was he on a secret mission for the CIA?

Was he on a secret mission for Thai royalty?

Or did the royalty—or the Viet Cong—or his own company’s employees—have him killed? Or did he kill himself?

Was he murdered by robbers who then hid the body?

Or—my own favorite theory—did he wind up a prisoner in a Tahitian brothel?

Compounding the puzzle is the fact that five months after Thompson vanished, the body of his 74-year-old sister, Mrs. Katherine Thompson Wood, was found in her Pennsylvania home.  She had been bludgeoned to death.  Her murder was never solved.  Were the police in error when they dismissed speculation that her death was somehow tied to her brother's disappearance? No one knows.

Only one possible clue has ever emerged regarding Thompson’s fate. In 1985, some bone fragments were found in the Cameron Highlands. It has been speculated they might be from the body of the vanished Silk King, but to date, there has been no forensic examination of these fragments.

Whatever became of Thompson, his legacy lives on. The beautiful home he built in Bangkok to showcase his extensive art and antiques collection is now a museum. It is one of Thailand's most popular tourist attractions, with about 40,000 visitors a year.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Weekend Link Dump


The weekend's nearly here!  Take a relaxing stroll.

Hull Daily Mail, November 13, 1929, via British Newspaper Archive

Bring the cats with you, of course.

And it's on to the links:

Watch out for those Igorot Death Chairs!

Watch out for Jill the Ripper!

Watch out for that handsome Harley Street Hoaxer!

Watch out for those metal cat claws!

Really, but really, watch out for Palmyra Atoll!...

...And Crater Lake!

Florida is really sinking!...

...So is Siberia!

The strange tale of the Girl in Blue.

Ham sandwich, anyone?

Swan Upping on the Thames.

A handy guide to becoming an early modern witch.

Jonathan Wild, legendary thief-taker turned organized crime boss.

That strange sound you're hearing right now is Giorgio Tsoukalos whooping with joy.

19th century gentleman looking for a wife falls prey to a practical joke.  I guess you had to have been there.

Taking back the swastika.

"A woman poisoned by a singular method."  Indeed.

Evatima Tardo, a very unfeeling woman.

Can you solve Samuel Wilberforce's riddle?

Plinlimmon, the "noble" St. Bernard who was once the toast of New York.

Shades of Elizabeth Canning:  An 1802 case involving gypsies and an alleged kidnapping.

The kind of thing that really upsets astronomers.

Let's dance!  Oh, well, maybe not.

Searching for Mona Lisa.

A tribute to the fat, funny, and clever Queen Caroline.

"Can an Englishman ever become truly Indian?"

Down the Valley of the Shadow:  Another ill-fated search for Eldorado.

Georgian ladies were really electric!  Just not in a good way.

Throwing the baby in with the bathwater.

Given the times we're living in, it won't surprise you to learn that the Devil is making a big comeback.

How to get a personal interview with a president.  Just catch him skinny-dipping.

"Maccarony cheese."  A historical recipe that sounds pretty darn good.

While we're on the topic of food:  All hail the power of the potato chip!

The earth's magnetic field is being exiled to Siberia.

All you never thought you needed to know about bone magic.

The curious case of the Somers "mutiny."

Having an affair with an eunuch can bring dreadful difficulties.  Uh, aside from the most obvious one.

And, finally, our Song of the Week: A bit of Harry Nilsson. And, of course, puppies:



And I'm outta here for this week. See you on Monday, with the story of the mystery of Thailand's vanished Silk King.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via British Newspaper Archive


Here's one from our Mystery Fires file. This account of strange--and very unnerving--"spontaneous combustions" appeared in the "Cambridge Independent Press" for August 23, 1856:

Mr. Blower and Dr. Barker applied the Bench for their sanction to an inquest being held on a fire, articles having been several times on fire in an extraordinary manner in the house of Mr. Moreton, in the employ of the Messrs. Howard. The gentlemen were informed that the Coroner had of himself full powers to hold an inquest, and such course met the approval of the Bench. The following appeared on this subject in the "Times"of Thursday:—

During the last few days public curiosity has been excited to a very unusual pitch by a series of occurrences that would be by no means out of place in one of Mrs. Radcliffe's romances, but which will read strangely in the matter-of-fact columns of a newspaper. The several theories of spontaneous combustion have often been revived, and, in the opinion of most wise men, have been successively and repeatedly exploded. But just as late years have witnessed a revival of ghost stories, spirit communications, and direct demoniacal agency, it seems not a little likely that the old theories of spontaneous combustion are coming in for another day in their turn, if we are to judge from the extraordinary revelations which have been not only retailed in gossip, but most gravely and fully inquired into under the coroner's warrant, and before 13 men honest and true, and, we may add, picked men, of this highly educated borough. A sketch of the principal facts will probably answer the same end as report of the depositions taken before the coroner, for the result of this last course would probably be only the awakening of half-incredulous wonder and a wild curiosity. On Tuesday night, the 12th instant, an alarm of fire was raised, and, on proceeding to the scene of danger, a house abutting on the large storeyard belonging to Messrs. Howard, the celebrated implement makers, and tenanted by one of their servants, it appeared that the family had taken the opportunity of the master's absence from home to have a good cleaning down, with an especial view to the riddance of a certain pest better known to Londoners than the happy dwellers in the country. In furtherance of the latter part of this truly housewifery design recourse was had to fumigation. A vessel containing broken roll sulphur was placed in what was deemed a safe position— viz., in a bisinette, which was removed from its usual place and set the middle of the room. The sulphur was duly ignited, and the room of course vacated except the obnoxious vermin. In the space of two hours it was discovered that the sulphurous fluid had escaped the basinette, had burnt through the bottom, fired the floor, and eaten its way through the planks. Timely observation and alarm availed to arrest the progress of the fire. All was deemed safe. But on Saturday evening the head of the family returned, and on retiring to rest, and having innocently thrown his damp stockings on the carpet, what was his astonishment at seeing them ignited! Something like a panic seized the household, but at length their fears were pacified and they went to rest. On Sunday morning, while the master was attending Divine service at the Methodist Chapel, fire was again discovered in the house. Considerable consternation was occasioned to the assembly by the calling out of a fireman during service, and also the master's disappearance from the pew. These fires were suppressed: but in the course of the day no less than thirty fires broke out in different parts of the house—in the presence of visitors, most respectable and intelligent men.

Every part of the furniture in every room of the house appeared to be charged with some mysterious self-igniting gas. Smoke issued suddenly from cupboards, large and small, from almost every drawer, and even from boxes of linen and woollen materials which had not been opened for some length of time prior the Tuesday's fire. Some of the statements made before the coroner are so startling as to be nearly incredible. One gentleman laid his handkerchief down upon the sofa when it forthwith ignited. Another gentleman, while discussing the marvels of the day and washing his hands, discovered that the damp towels on the horse in the bedroom were on fire. A lady, anxious to prevent further mischief, had a short time previously examined a box containing articles appertaining to feminine apparel, and pronouncing it safe had shut it up, but going to remove it felt that it was hot, and on re-opening it discovered the contents in a blaze; but is impossible to enumerate all the strange fantasies played by this subtle and mysterious fire. Of course suspicion was soon awake, but the closest investigation afforded no ground on which to rest the surmise of foul play. On the Monday morning the phenomena, somewhat abated, reappeared, and it was found that the greater part of the property in the house was charred or burnt to tinder. Two medical gentlemen--Dr. Barker and Mr. Blower—visited the scene of the fiery mystery, and at noon made an application to the sitting magistrates (in the absence of the mayor), for sanction to their proposal submitting the matter to the coroner. The coroner lost no time summoning a jury, which consisted of the most respectable tradesmen of the town, and which proceeded to business at the George Inn. The inquest commenced at 3.30 p.m. Monday afternoon, and at 7 o'clock was adjourned to Tuesday morning at 10. On Tuesday it was resumed and concluded by 6 o'clock p.m.

In the course of this prolonged inquiry the whole of the incidents (some of which we have mentioned above by way of specimens), were deposed to, and every effort made to account for the singular occurrences. At one time there was some slight hope of establishing connexion between the fire Tuesday night and the numerous outbreaks of the following Sunday, but this idea was abandoned perforce—so far, least, as any ordinary connexion between the two sets of events was concerned. The medical testimony of the two gentlemen named above was by far the most important, inasmuch as it most distinctly abolished all preconceived explanations, and also because it indicated a most remarkable and important class of truths in practical chemistry. Without venturing to give a formal solution of the phenomena, these gentlemen were of opinion that the sulphurous fumes, in connexion with the gas of the charred wood, had charged the entire house with inflammable gas, which, in some cases by friction, in others electricity, had been from time to time ignited.

No suspicion of any person survived the first few hours the inquiry, although the jury felt that there was not ground for a distinct opinion of the matter. The depositions will doubtless be submitted to some eminent manipulators of chymical science, and it is to hoped that they will be able to give a more precise solution to the mystery which has filled many a wise head with misgivings as to the spiritual geography of the somewhat lonely house.

The verdict of the jury was as follows:—"The fire was accidentally caused by incautiously placing and setting fire to a quantity of brimstone in a pot, the same being placed a basinette, situate on the first floor of the said premises; but as the cause of the continuation of fires on the same premises, we have not sufficient evidence to shew."

This extraordinary occurrence will undergo a further scientific investigation.

As a footnote, I really miss the days when phrases like "misgivings as to the spiritual geography" would appear in your local newspaper.

This is the last known word on the matter. If these "eminent manipulators of chymical science" were able to devise a definitive solution to the mystery, I have found no record of it.