"...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, May 4, 2015

The Kinrade Mystery

The most puzzling unsolved murders are not necessarily the ones where no one has any idea who the murderer might have been. Often, the greatest homicide mysteries are where there is one obvious suspect, but there is not sufficient evidence to close the case, and the motive remains unknown.

The classic example of this sort of judicial riddle is Lizzie Borden. Here was a respectable, upper-class, well-behaved woman from a seemingly normal family, a genteel lady who showed no hint of violence before or after the event that made her famous. And yet, many of her contemporaries--not to mention the majority of crime historians--believed she committed the particularly brutal murder of her father and stepmother. However, there was not enough proof of this to convict her, and--if she was indeed guilty--it is unknown what inspired her to make the one-day-only transformation from secretary of the Christian Endeavor Society to Hatchet Queen.

And if she did not commit these murders, well...who did?

A hauntingly similar, but lesser-known case is the subject of today's post.

Our story opens inside the home of the Kinrade family of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The date was February 25, 1909.

And the body lying on the floor was 25-year-old Ethel Kinrade.

The Kinrades were well-to-do and highly respected members of their community. By all accounts, they were a happy, affectionate family with no hint of scandal or serious discord. The father, Thomas Kinrade, was a school principal who was widely liked and admired. He was also landlord of some thirty rental properties in the town. Thomas and his wife Isabel had two sons and three daughters. The boys had homes and careers of their own, but the three girls, Ethel, Gertrude, and Florence, still lived at home.

Ethel Kinrade

Twenty-three year old Florence was the most offbeat member of this deeply conventional family. The attractive young woman had ambitions to become a professional singer and actress. Her family--particularly Ethel--disapproved of this goal, but they do not appear to have actively tried to stop her, either. She had spent much of the previous year appearing in various stage productions in Richmond, Virginia, and had only been home for about two months at the time of the family tragedy.

On what would prove to be Ethel's last day on earth, she had lunch with her parents and sisters. After the meal, the father returned to work, and the youngest girl, sixteen-year-old Gertrude, went back to school. Afterwards, Mrs. Kinrade and the two remaining daughters discussed the numerous "tramps" who had been harassing them by hanging around the house and repeatedly knocking on their door asking for handouts. Most unsettling of all, someone had tried to break into their home the previous evening. They agreed that Mrs. Kinrade should go to the police station and ask them for protection against such marauders. She left the house shortly after 3 p.m.

From that point on, Florence was our sole source of information about what took place inside the house. At her sister's inquest, she testified that she and Ethel prepared to go for a walk. After putting on her street clothes, Florence noticed she had a hole in one of her gloves, and went downstairs to get needle and thread to mend it. While she was there, the doorbell rang. It was a man, begging for food.

She agreed to get him something, but when she tried to close the door, he shoved his way inside the house and demanded money. Too frightened to argue, Florence went upstairs to get ten dollars she had in her bedroom. When she passed Ethel's bedroom, she "sort of whispered" to her sister to lock herself in. She could not tell if Ethel heard her or not. When she was in her own room, she hesitated, not sure what to do. Then, she heard "a noise like the house going up." Most of us, by this point, would be throwing open the windows and screaming for help, but instead, Florence said she merely went back downstairs and meekly handed the intruder the money.

Her account of the incident then went from merely "odd" to downright bizarre. She said she went into the parlor and opened the window, intending to jump out of it, but the man rushed in and grabbed her. She then by some means--she could not say how--made her way to the kitchen, where she ran out into the back yard. Although she was surrounded by neighbors, she said she was too frightened to cry for help or jump their three-foot-high fence to seek assistance.

Instead, she could think of nothing better to do than go back inside the house. When she went inside, she found the burglar standing in the hallway. She also saw her sister's body lying in the dining room. Stricken with horror, she ran past the murderer and out the front door. She fled into the home across the street, crying, "Ethel is shot--shot six times." The neighbor, a Mrs. Hickey, helped Florence call the police, and then her father. Mrs. Kinrade had left the police station only a few minutes before Florence phoned them. The mother discovered her daughter was dead by reading of it on a newspaper office's bulletin board.

When police arrived at the Kinrade home, they found that Florence's news had been all too accurate. Someone, it was clear, had been very, very anxious to see Ethel dead.

Through some error in communication, Thomas Kinrade was laboring under the belief that Florence had been the murder victim. When he arrived at his home, practically his first words were, "I expected that something like this would happen." It was not until he was shown the body that he realized it was another daughter who was dead. When he was later asked to explain his curious remark, he vaguely waved it off, muttering that he did not remember saying any such thing.

The police found Florence practically in hysterics, but she was able to give them a description of the killer. He was, she said, a man of about forty, medium height and weight, with a heavy brown mustache. She added that he seemed better dressed than the usual tramp.

From the very beginning, the police had no idea where to even begin their investigation. This was far from an ordinary burglary: the miscreant had not left after being given money, and he had taken nothing else from the home. Florence's description of the murderer's cold-blooded, yet utterly deranged behavior led many to assume that they were looking for a madman. Was he a homicidal lunatic, perhaps an escapee from the local asylum?

Or was there a personal motive? Although Florence was engaged to Clare Montrose Wright, a theological student in Toronto, she had also enjoyed the "attentions" of a fellow actor during her stint in Richmond. Had this rival swain, angered by rejection, come to Hamilton to get a murderous revenge on Florence, only to accidentally shoot the wrong sister?

However, the more police thought it over, the more they found themselves casting suspicious glances at Florence herself, particularly when she proved herself incapable of giving a consistent narrative of the tragedy. At some times, she said she had been in her bedroom when the shots were fired. At others, she said that she had witnessed the killing. Sometimes, she said that she had no idea if she had gotten outside the parlor window. Sometimes, she said she had gotten out, but was pulled back inside by the killer. Numerous other discrepancies in her testimony were noted. Her credibility took another blow when the autopsy revealed Ethel suffered four non-fatal gunshots to her head, and then, some fifteen minutes later, two fatal shots to her heart--a fact that did not coincide with any of Florence's accounts of what had happened. A coachman who was waiting outside a neighbor's house at approximately the time of the murder testified that he had not seen anyone enter or leave the Kinrade house until he saw Florence running out after the shooting.

The murder weapon was never found. Police learned that when she was in Richmond, Florence had carried a revolver for self-protection. However, she claimed that she had sold the gun before returning to Canada. Although she was unable to prove she was telling the truth about that, investigators were equally unable to prove she was not.

Police uncovered a number of interesting details about Florence, most of them centering around her very busy love life. Despite her engagement to Wright, she had, up until about two weeks before the murder, been corresponding with her Richmond gentleman friend, an American actor named James Baum. Her family disapproved of this relationship, and Mrs. Kinrade and Ethel had intercepted at least one of his letters. Baum himself testified at the inquest. He said that he had considered himself engaged to Florence. She had told him her parents had forced her into an unhappy marriage, but that she was now divorced. (This was, of course, complete fiction.) At the same time, she was writing to a man named "Harold," whom she had contacted through his matrimonial advertisement.

It emerged that Florence had lied to her family about her career. She had assured them that while away from home, she had only performed in church services (in those days, churches often hired singers.)  In truth, she was working in the "immoral" world of the theater under the name of "Mildred Dale." Bizarrely--or, perhaps pathetically--Florence had compiled a scrapbook of wholly fictitious newspaper clippings describing performances she never gave and honors she had never received. As the Kinrade family attorney repeatedly pointed out, none of this had any known connection to Ethel's murder, but it certainly shed a somewhat lurid light on this ostensibly prim and proper Florence.

James Baum did tell the coroner's jury one very puzzling detail. He said that some unknown man had been stalking Florence when she was in Virginia. She had even shown him a threatening letter she had received from this menacing figure. On another occasion, an anonymous fan sent her chocolates. She threw them away, fearing they were poisoned. Did Florence really have a sinister "admirer," or was this more evidence of her talent for baroque fantasies?

Police also received reports suggesting that the pretty, talented, and outgoing Florence was the family "pet," while the quieter, plainer Ethel was relatively ignored as a stay-at-home drudge, condemned to a life of boring housework while her sister led a comparatively glamorous and exciting existence. Perhaps there were more family tensions and quarrels than any outsiders knew?

At the inquest, Florence was subjected to quite brutal questioning about her messy private life and her many decidedly odd accounts of her sister's death--the Crown lawyers and the Coroner all but directly accused her of murder. However, this interrogation accomplished nothing except sending her into increasingly wild fits of hysteria. (At one particularly melodramatic point, she collapsed completely, and was carried out of the courtroom crying, "I see that man. He will shoot me! He will shoot me!") Pretty Womanhood in Distress is always a popular role, and gained her much sympathy.

When the inquest ended, no one knew any more about Ethel's death than they did before. The jury ruled that "the deceased met her death by shot wounds inflicted by some person or persons unknown to the jury." They did, however, attach a rider stating that "owing to the fact of the unreliability of some of the evidence produced, the Crown is especially requested to continue its investigations."

That advice went unheeded. The investigation into Ethel Kinrade's death essentially ended with this inconclusive inquest. We have no idea who murdered the young woman, and it's a virtual certainty we never will. Florence's garbled and improbable testimony, as well as the medical evidence about the lapse of time between gunshots, brought a cloud of dark suspicion over her head which never really dissipated. On the other hand, it has been argued that it would hardly be remarkable for a sensitive, high-strung young woman to have incoherent memories of a sudden, horrifying situation. It was never proven that she owned a revolver at the time of the murder. And, of course, no one could produce any valid reason why she should brutally and cold-bloodedly gun down her own sister. But if, indeed, some wandering lunatic burst into the Kinrade home, only to fill one sister with bullets and leave the other completely unharmed, he vanished as quickly and mysteriously as he had appeared.

Shortly after Ethel's inquest, Thomas Kinrade quit his job, and the family moved out of town. Less than five months after the murder, Florence married Clare Wright, who had offered unwavering support during her ordeal.  The couple moved to Calgary, where Clare abandoned his plans to become a minister and instead practiced law. The couple had two children before Wright died of pneumonia in 1918. After becoming a widow, Florence returned to the stage, where she had a fair measure of success. She died in Los Angeles in 1977.

It will always be wondered, however, if her most adept performance took place in her family home one February afternoon in 1909.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Weekend Link Dump, Annual Kentucky Derby Edition

Because behind every great horse is a great cat.

Needles, 1956 Derby winner, and best friend Boots.

Let's go race around some links:

Who the hell was Mrs. S***k*n*us?

What the hell happened to Anna Schrader?

What the hell are these prehistoric lines?

What the hell is hovering over New York?

Watch out for the Wild Man of Illinois!

Watch out for those Goth Pirate Princesses!

Watch out for those steamboat fire birds!

Watch out for Toodles!

Matthew Lewis takes an eternal sea cruise.

Finally burying the gruesome legend of Edward Mordake.

This is fun:  Watch Zahi Hawass react to Robert Bauval's name the way a vampire reacts to garlic.

An Indian soldier writes home, 1915.

A fitting post for this weekend: a guide to Regency horse terminology.

How a court sorcerer kicked off a witch hunt.

Catharine Macaulay, early English female historian.

May Day in the Georgian Era.

Celebrating Walpurgisnacht.

Empress Zewditu of Ethiopia.

The German suicide wave of 1945.

I've got 99 problems, but living in the 17th century ain't one.

A forgotten Ambrose Bierce hoax?

The bed you'll sleep in forever.

"Ash magic."

Mars is just one big zoo.

See what I mean?

The strangely fiery death of Grace Pett.

Stunning views of historical sites as seen by a drone.

I love this:  The Order of the Pug!

Meet the Chinese woman who was the most successful pirate in history.

Memorializing a gruesome early 19th century murder.

Makes sense to me.

More puzzling ancient mercury.

Medieval robots!

And, finally, my annual Derby handicapping challenge.  Leave the name of your favorite contender in the comments, and I'll place a bet on him.  If he wins, I get a winning ticket, and you get...uh, bragging rights on this blog for the rest of the year?

This year, I have no particular leanings towards anyone.  At the moment, I'm vaguely opting for Dortmund, even though his trainer Bob Baffert isn't *cough* one of my very favorite people in the industry.  Beautiful, isn't he?  (Yes, I mean the horse, not Bob!)

Or, just for fun, I may bet Ocho Ocho Ocho or Mubtaahij and hope for one of those Mine That Bird years.  There's always the morning line pick--again Baffert, argh--but often, favorites at the Derby have been about as successful as the Edsel.

Well, that's a wrap, gang.  I'll see you on Monday, with a Lizzie Borden-like murder mystery from Canada.  In the meantime, here's the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra:

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Here's one for the Mystery Fires file.  This account of a red-hot puzzle in New Brunswick, Canada, appeared in the Bangor, Maine, "Daily Whig," August 10, 1887:
Woodstock, N.B., is greatly excited, says a "Boston Herald" dispatch, over the strange and inexplicable scenes which have been enacted in a little, two-story frame house on Victoria street, occupied by Reginald C. Hoyt, a picture frame dealer, who does business on Main street, a few doors above the Wilbur House. His family, consisting of his wife, five children and two nieces, are in a state of mental fear, dread, and anxiety, and will probably vacate the house at once. Between eleven o'clock, Friday morning, and noon, Saturday, no less than forty fires broke out in various parts of the house, and bedding, furniture, window shades, clothing, and various household articles were partially destroyed. Only untiring vigilance has prevented the house and its contents from burning to the ground, and this would also have caused the destruction of other wooden buildings in the vicinity.

These fires can be traced to no human agency, and even the scientists are staggered. Without premonition and with no lamps lighted or stoves in use, various articles would burst out in flames. Now it would be a curtain, high up and out of reach; then a bedquilt in another room would commence to smoke and smoulder, and as if to still further nonplus the theorists, a carpet covered lounge was found to be all afire underneath, among the jute stretched above the springs.

A basket of clothes in the shed burst into flames, and the basket itself was partially consumed. A child's dress hanging on a hook, a feather bed, a straw mattress, no two articles in the same room were ignited and would have been consumed but for water copiously poured on them.

News spread quickly that Hoyt's house was haunted, and great crowds flocked there. One of the visitors was a leading physician and druggist, whose only theory was that of electrical or gaseous combustion. But the fact that the fire burst forth in rooms, the windows of which were wide open, seems to refute this supposition. Mr. James Walls, editor of the Carleton "Sentinel," the leading newspaper in town, went to examine into the strange affair, and while standing in the parlor talking with Mrs. Hoyt, was astonished to see a white cotton window curtain burst into flames at a point near the ceiling, and when no one was present. He rushed to the spot, climbed a chair, and with his hands, which were somewhat burned, extinguished the fire, only to see it break out anew at a point far removed from the original blaze. He came away puzzled and completely nonplussed.

Mr. William S. Jones, of Boston, in company with Mr. Jarvis, of the Halifax Banking Company, called at the fire haunted house this morning, and, while seated in the front room talking with Mrs. Hoyt and Mr. George Connell, the lawyer, a child's shriek was heard in the adjoining room, and the party rushed in to find a basket of clothes in a blaze. Like all the others, they came away mystified.

The house presents a strange appearance. In every room, partially burned garments, sheets, and articles of furniture were lying around drenched with water, and walls and ceilings blackened and smoked. The children were huddled about their mother, everyone dreading a visit of the fire spook and anxiously glancing about.

No evidence of human agency was discovered in any of these fires. On the contrary, it was discovered that on one occasion fire had broken out when no one was in the house. Mr. Hoyt returned from a neighbor's, where he had taken his family, to find a bed on fire.

Mr. Hoyt is a sober, industrious man and bears a good reputation. His property is not insured. The house is insured, but is not owned by Mr. Hoyt.

The best anyone could do for an explanation to the mystery was that, "A few weeks ago an inmate of the house is said to have been attacked with typhoid fever and after recovery, quantities of sulphur were used as a disinfectant up to a recent period. The fumes from the burning sulphur impregnated the cotton articles around and bad ventilation and the peculiar state of the atmosphere contributed to bring about the mysterious breaking out of fire in sundry articles. "r A parallel case occurred in a provincial town in the north of England some years ago."

[Note: In response to an article on the Hoyt mystery published in the "Woodstock Press," a Hanford Wolhaupter wrote the paper with his own similar experience. He said, "In your issue of the 9th instant I read with much interest of the mysterious fire that occurred lately in the house of R. C. Hoyt, Woodstock. It brings vividly to my mind a subject of which I was an eye witness. My father's family consisted of seven persons. I was at the time I have reference to nearly twenty years of age, and remember the circumstance as well as though it happened yesterday. It occurred in the year 1834, I think; we resided in Richmond, Carleton County. There would be fire start up in four, five or six places, all at once, in different parts of the house, up in the chamber and in different rooms. We all took part in extinguishing these at the time, and in a few minutes we would observe a number more in different parts of the house. At last we all became quite alarmed, and could not arrive at any conclusion of the cause. Rev. Samuel Joll was stationed Wesleyan Minister at Woodstock at the time, and expressed the belief that these singular fires would be followed by strong spiritual manifestations, which soon proved to be the case."

Unfortunately, Wolhaupter apparently did not elaborate on these "strong spiritual manifestations."]

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Lady of the Haystack

One day in 1776, a lovely, refined-looking young woman wandered into the English village of Bourton. She appeared greatly distressed, even hysterical. At nightfall, she retreated to a haystack, where she insisted on remaining for several days. Townspeople finally managed to bring this unsettling visitor to a local mental institution, but the trustees decided she was "eccentric" more than actually insane, and sent her on her way.  She immediately returned to her refuge of hay. The woman continued to live there for the next four years, subsisting on milk and tea--she would accept nothing else--brought to her by charitable neighbors. She consistently refused to say who she was, or where she came from, intoning only, “Trouble and misery dwell in houses.”

True enough, but surely they’re readily found in haystacks, as well.

It was thought the stranger was German--she had a slight foreign accent, and when a man once spoke to her in that language, she was visibly affected--but that proved little help in establishing her identity. The local authorities, not knowing what else to do with her, placed her in a private madhouse. The writer and philanthropist Hannah More--described by a contemporary as someone who “unquestionably had some humanity, though she was rather too fond of its public exhibition”-- took up this strange, troubled woman’s cause. She raised money on her behalf, and made persistent efforts to solve the mystery of this “handsome, young, interesting” figure who was “enough Mistress of her reason carefully to shut up from our observation every avenue that might lead to her secret.”

All she learned of the Lady of the Haystack was “that her Father was a German, her Mother an Italian; that she has one brother and one Sister; that her father had a very fine garden full of olive and orange Trees.” More ensured that the woman was decently cared for, but the inmate’s condition, both mental and physical, sadly deteriorated. A visitor described her as “pale and wan, worne [sic] with sorrow, beaten with wind and rain…partly insane, partly silly and childish.” This tragic stray, who had been given the name, “Louisa,” died in 1801, still stubbornly clinging to “her secret.”

Believe it or not, it is at this point that her story truly gets weird. Nine years after her arrival in Bourton, an anonymous pamphlet circulated through Europe entitled “The Stranger—A True History.” According to this document, some years earlier the King of Spain received a letter purportedly from Emperor Joseph II of Austria, asking him to take in an illegitimate daughter of Joseph’s late father Francis I. When the Spanish King sent a reply asking for more details, an indignant Joseph retorted that he had sent no such letter. Authorship of this letter was eventually traced to a Mademoiselle La Frulen, a shadowy woman from Bordeaux. When this forger was arrested, she related some bombshell revelations. In short, she claimed that she grew up in a remote house in Bohemia. Her only companions were two older women and a priest, who deliberately kept her from learning to read or write. She was periodically visited by a stranger who was obviously of high status. He gave her portraits of himself and of two women, one of whom, he said, was her mother. As she neared adulthood, the priest told her this man (whom she later learned was actually her father,) was dead. She was sent to a convent in France, but managed to flee. After wandering around Europe for a while, she was rescued by the Austrian Ambassador to Sweden and sent to Bordeaux. There, she was visited by a strange man, who provided her with large amounts of money from a mysterious donor. Although she was supposed to get these payments regularly, her visitor disappeared, leaving her without funds. Of the three portraits given to her by her Bohemian visitor, she discovered that one was of Francis I and the second was of his Empress, Maria Theresa. The third, that of the woman she believed to be her mother, was partially veiled to obscure her appearance.

According to this pamphlet, after the Ambassador died, an officer brought her to a village in France. She was given a small amount of money and “abandoned to her destiny.” From there, the young woman, deeply disturbed by her strange experiences--and who could blame her?--eventually somehow wound up in that English haystack.

It is, of course, impossible to say how much--if any--of this superbly nutty story is true. However, no one has come up with any other clues to this woman's identity.

Shortly after the death of “Louisa,” an anonymous sympathizer contributed to the “Gentleman’s Magazine” the following epitaph:
In yonder dust, unmark’d for public fame,
Low rests the relicts of Louisa’s frame!
Poor hapless sufferer, of the maniac line!
Thy wrongs no more a tortur’d breast confine!
Enough for thee, that ling’ring Sorrow’s breath
Found final rescue in the boon of death!
Consol’d be they, who sought thy soul’s relief!
Tormented they, who overwhelm’d with grief!
Accurs’d the crime, that ‘reft thy reason’s ray!
Though thou be ransom’d for eternal day!
And where frail Innocence would Vice repel
May guardian angels thy sad story tell!

And there our little tale must end.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

It's nearly the weekend!  Keep your chin up!

Or out, as the case may be.

On to the links:

What the hell are Fafrotskis?

What the hell was this?

What the hell is the Cerne Giant?

Who the hell killed Delia Adriano?

Why the hell couldn't they hang John Lee?

That eternal question:  What the hell is the Shroud of Turin?

Watch out for the Medusa Lake!

Live in North Carolina?  Watch out for those egg-shaped flying creatures!

Watch out for the elves living in your basement!

Watch out for those Nazi-eating catfish!

Soon, we may have to watch out for those brain-controlled drones!

The world is really humming!

Minnie, speakeasy cat mascot.

Things are getting even weirder in Siberia.

The man who guards Napoleon.

The beetle-gowned Ellen Terry.

The many varieties of Georgian Era hysteria.

The 1,900-year-old hangover cure.

Why it's rarely a good idea to move a ghost's chair.

The bishop, the ghost, and the book.

How the Belvoir Witches got their revenge.

The curious case of the Presidential UFO.

A bit old, but I love this story of the sea captain who played Richard III.

I find it extremely depressing that some need reminding that the Soviets were not sweethearts.

Speaking of depressing, here's more examples of archaeological vandalism.

A man with a metal detector finds a Roman grave.

More pushing back human history.

Animals as earthquake predictors.

Googling Nessie.

How to quell a mutiny, 1816.

Everyone's a critic.  Even the dogs.

Warding off witches with bearded men bottles.

Why you should never set the hounds on your ghost spies.

The strange abduction of Thomas Dellow.

The dog who may--or may not--lie in Greenwood Cemetery.

A love letter that is also a delightful piece of art.

Praying for a cure in the 17th century.

The famed painter who was a footnoted cannibal.  Or something.

Shorter answer:  Probably not.

Life on Mars in 1900.

It turns out you really can rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

My guess is that this comparison is an insult to the ravens.

The amazing Alexandra David-Neel.  (My own look at her life is here.)

The Vikings besiege 9th century Paris.

Leonardo da Vinci's resume.  Obviously destined to be just another burger-flipper.

The curious tale of the Loch Ness Monster and the fired scientist.

Compost in Peace; or, Aunt Tilly Makes Wonderful Zucchini.

The ever-enigmatic Chevalier d'Eon.

A selection of dragon and unicorn burials.

The first known cremation.

Canonbury Besse, a sort of 17th century Belle Gunness.

A memorial to a "most cruel murder."

A 2,300 year old coin found in England.

A wonderfully well preserved English castle.

Portraits of 19th century London beggars.

Date night in Manhattan, 1916.

Some fun with Recipe Archaeology, featuring Mesopotamian "Kukkis!"

And finally, I found this book via Public Domain Review:  a delightful diary of a teenage girl describing her visit to France in 1821.  (Spoiler:  She wasn't impressed.)

And we're done!  See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at a mysterious woman from 18th century England. In the meantime, let's celebrate spring with a little Vivaldi:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

IPN, July 9, 1870, via British Newspaper Archive

I came across this story while compiling wedding disasters for that post I did some weeks ago, but I thought this one deserved to stand alone. Enjoy some romantic bliss, "Illustrated Police News" style.

The Times of Friday last contained the following humorous account of a violent assault committed by an infuriated and indignant wife upon her faithless husband.--A French paper relates a thrilling scene which lately occurred in a Parisian mairie. A couple presented themselves to be married, the bride about eighteen years of age, and possessed of considerable personal attractions; the bridegroom an extremely small titan, aged forty-five. When the ceremony was concluded the door of the hall was burst open, and a woman of gigantic stature, accompanied by a thin damsel of fifteen, burst into the room and elbowed her way through the semicircle of guests.

"Wretch, scoundrel, thief!" she cried, addressing the husband, who turned as white as a sheet; "this is how you leave me in the lurch, who have sighed during fifteen years for the day when I might call myself your wife!" Saying this she seized the unhappy man by the collar and jerked him up under her left arm as though he were a crush-hat, taking no notice of his struggles.

She addressed the mayor in a voice of thunder, "Do I arrive too late?" "The marriage is concluded," replied the mayor, "and I request you to release M. Augustin and to retire." "Not," said the giantess, "without giving his deserts to the villain who leaves me with this girl here." "No no, that girl is not mine," howled the little man.

He had better have remained silent. The giantess frantically raised him in the air, and whirled him round her head. "Repeat what you have said," she shrieked; "this child, who is as like you as one pea is another--is she yours or not?" M. Augustin did not open his mouth. His executioner then seized his nose with her left hand and wrung it violently.

About this time two of the guests, moved by the entreaties of the bride, attempted to interfere, but the enraged woman, using the bridegroom as a weapon and brandishing him at arm's length, charged her opponents with such fury that she put them speedily to flight.

"Call the police," cried the mayor. "You need not give yourself the trouble," hoarsely ejaculated the giantess; "I will let go the rascal of my own accord. Here, my beauty," addressing the bride, "is your little bit of a man, I have not broken him. We have no further business here. Follow me, Baptistine," and so saying she flung down her victim at the feet of two agents of police, who at that moment appeared at the door.

"I go," she added; "but let him ever appear before me on his wife's arm, and I will take him between my thumb and forefinger and make but one mouthful of him."

This little incident cast quite a gloom over the assembled guests, and no one dared even to pick the fainting bridegroom from the floor until the last echo of the heavy footsteps of the injured fair one had died away in the distance, when they raised him to his feet, and in solemn silence took their departure.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Great Trinity Church Hoax; or, Dix Picked For Slick Tricks

Morgan Dix, via Wikipedia

In the late 19th century, Dr. Morgan Dix was one of America's most active and respected churchmen. For over fifty years, he was associated with New York's Trinity Church, first as minister, and then as rector. He also wrote a number of religious works. He was a genuinely godly man: kindly and tolerant, if somewhat on the stodgy side.

What makes this otherwise uncontroversial man of God relevant to this blog is that he was also once the victim of a bizarre and long-drawn-out hoax that was a considerably more sinister variation of the famous "Berner Street Hoax" of 1810.

Rev. Dix's ordeal began on the morning of February 18,1880, when he answered a doorbell ring at his rectory. Standing outside was a respectable-looking man in clerical garb, who presented himself as a head of an academy for young ladies. He was there in response to Dix's letter asking them to take three little girls into their establishment.

Dix politely explained that there was some strange mistake: He had never sent such a letter, and for the matter of that, did not even know three girls who needed to be placed in a school. The man went on his way. Dix brooded over the matter for a moment, shrugged it off, and returned to his breakfast.

It was a breakfast he was fated to leave unfinished. In fact, he would not have a peaceful meal again for quite some time. Scarcely had he sat down again when another representative from another girls' school arrived. He had gotten a similar letter, purportedly from Rev. Dix. By the time the day was over, about 20 such gentlemen had turned up on Dix's door. That is, they turned up when Dix's front door wasn't being besieged by emissaries from Bible societies, publishing houses, and merchants of all varieties.  Each and every one of them was clutching letters signed with Dix's name, saying he wished to make large purchases from them for various charitable organizations.  Then came the safe manufacturers, wig makers, horse dealers, dancing instructors...all of them also believing that the reverend had requested their services.

To Dix's increasing horror, on the following day he was confronted by a similar parade of callers, augmented by a flood of puzzled letters from clergymen across the entire East Coast, responding to notes they had received from "Dix," chiding them for not answering his letters to them--letters, of course, which Dix had never written. Some of these letters, we are told, not-so-tactfully suggested that Dix had been working too hard and needed a good long rest.

On February 21, Dix received an unsigned letter informing him that the writer had arranged for some dealers in used clothing to come by that day to pick up Mrs. Dix's entire wardrobe. Sure enough, soon after reading this letter Dix saw a parade of these merchants driving their wagons up to his house, loudly demanding the clothing they had been promised. Dix barricaded himself inside his home, but the dealers, increasingly angry at how--in their eyes--the rector was trying to swindle them, caused such a riot outside that the police had to be called in to drive them away.

No sooner had these outraged clothiers departed than a carriage came racing up to the rectory. It stopped, and a doctor leaped out and ran inside the house. He was quite indignant when he learned that, contrary to what an urgent message had told him, the reverend was not dying of an epileptic fit. He was soon joined by about thirty other physicians, all of whom had received that same frantic plea for medical help. It was not until midnight that Dix was finally rid of the lot of them.

Perhaps at least some of these doctors should have stuck around a bit. When, bright and early the next morning, Dix was awakened by half-a-dozen shoemakers who had been summoned to measure the rectory's residents for footwear, the reverend probably was close to having fits.

That was the reverend's breakfast. Dix spent his lunchtime dealing with fifty or so people answering "help wanted" ads placed in his name. Dinnertime saw him eying twenty of New York's most important clergymen, who had answered "his" invitation to come dine with him in order to meet the Bishops of York and Exeter.

The following morning was enlivened by visits from officials of some of the city's top business houses. They had all received letters signed with Dix's name, threatening legal action because of the insulting communications the reverend had received from them. These emissaries had no idea what this was all about--they had, of course, not sent Dix any letters at all--but they were nevertheless anxious to assure the reverend of their good will. In the meantime, word had spread about the lively doings at the Trinity rectory.  Crowds of New Yorkers were now surrounding the reverend's home, happily waiting to see who would show up at his door next.  It was a party atmosphere for everyone except the Dix family.

It was not until the end of that day that the understandably befuddled reverend got any clue about how and why his life had been turned into a nightmarish vaudeville skit. He received a letter from someone who gave his name only as "Gentleman Joe." "Joe" cheerfully informed Dix that this persecution would only end when the rector had paid him one thousand dollars. If Dix agreed, he was to place an ad in the "New York Herald" saying "Gentleman Joe: All right."

Dix naturally took this letter straight to the police. After scratching their heads a bit--even for New York City, this was a novel bit of weirdness--they told the reverend to follow the ungentlemanly Joe's instructions. Dix did so, but was baffled to find that when his ad was published, the newspaper contained two other identical ads, evidently placed by "Joe" himself.

By this point, Joe was bored with Reverend Dix. He ignored the rector's ad and instead turned his unwelcome attentions to a crowd of other New York religious leaders, all of whom received abusive letters signed with the names of various saloon-owners, demanding they settle their extensive bills for liquor.

Dix was left in an uneasy peace until March 17, when he received another letter from Joe. This one warned that unless Dix sent him fifteen hundred dollars, on the following Friday the rectory would see a sequel to the previous adventure.

When Friday rolled around, police surrounded the house and Dix locked himself in his office, but Joe was too much for them. First, a lawyer arrived at the house. He had received a letter supposedly signed by Mrs. Dix, stating that she wanted a divorce. Twenty other attorneys, who had all received identical letters, soon followed. Then came an agent from a steamship line with the tickets to Havana Dix had allegedly ordered. They were closely followed by a crowd of people who had advertised for lost or stolen property. They had received letters informing them that their goods could be retrieved at the rectory. Over the next few days, the stream of people continued, all of them answering various summonses. The dramatic climax came when an angry man pushed his way into the rectory, accused Dix of trying to seduce his wife, and threatened him with a beating unless the reverend made a public apology for his disgraceful conduct.

The day after his encounter with the enraged husband, Dix received another letter from Joe, gleefully saying how much he had enjoyed his visit with the reverend.

The police were not having much luck tracking down Dix's persecutor. They had never heard of any criminal called "Gentleman Joe," and although they set up a dragnet across the city in the hopes of capturing him at some mailbox or another, their efforts were futile. What finally broke the case was when another clergyman told them of a former Trinity Sunday-school teacher who had been expelled from the church. (He had taken a disquieting interest in the choir boys.) This ex-churchman had the appropriately melodramatic name of Eugene Edward Fairfax Williamson. The police obtained from the Post Office a card written by Williamson, requesting that his mail be forwarded to the Hotel Windsor. The handwriting was identical to the "Gentleman Joe" letters.

Detectives rushed to the Windsor, only to learn that their deranged bird had flown to Baltimore. He was traced to a boarding house in that city, where he was arrested. Newspapers described him as a small, balding, sickly-looking man of about forty.  Williamson readily admitted his culpability, explaining breezily that he had nothing against the Reverend Dix--it was "just a joke"--and the rector was only chosen as a target because his upstanding reputation made the prank all the sweeter.  "I really do not know why I did it," he sighed to a reporter from the "New York Sun."  "I have a soft spot in that direction.  It's a mania.  When I get a pen in my hand I have to write."

The rest of the tale is briefly told: Williamson was tried for attempted blackmail and forging a check which he had used to swindle a jewelry firm, found guilty, and imprisoned in Sing Sing, where he died only a few months into his three-and-a-half year sentence.

There was still a lingering mystery about this odd miscreant.  He first appeared in the historical record in 1868, when he traveled through Europe presenting himself as an aristocratic man of wealth. He came to New York in 1870, where he was caught stealing some pens and stationery from a shop. He then returned to Europe, where he served a brief term in London's Newgate for harassing a man in much the same way he would later bedevil Dr. Dix. He returned to America in 1875, where he briefly settled in Pittsburgh before returning to New York and his famed good times with the rector of Trinity.  That was about all we know for certain about him.

Williamson's source of income also remained unknown. He owned no property, and had no bank account. Although he apparently never worked a legitimate job--unless you count his ill-fated stint as a Sunday school teacher--and never committed more than a handful of petty crimes, he always seemed to have lots of money, and usually moved in high society. His little swindles were evidently something he did merely for his own warped amusement, not financial gain. He even published poetry and produced a successful play--although his literary glory was considerably dimmed when it was discovered that these works were actually written and previously published by a New Orleans nun.

Williamson himself claimed to be connected to the wealthy and powerful Fairfax clan of Virginia, and that during the Civil War he fought ably for the Confederacy. This has led to speculation that he was a "remittance man": the black sheep of a prominent family who paid him off to leave his country for his country's good. A sort of Bertie Wooster from Hell, you might say.

According to some contemporary newspapers, the truth about him was more prosaic.  These reports claimed he was from a well-to-do and respectable Baltimore family, who regarded him as "always flighty."  His sister, Mrs. G.F. Bailey, thought vaguely that Eugene had made money some years before "in the book business."  She said that she did not know the exact nature of this "book business," as he was "very reticent on such matters."

His mother was quoted as saying that her son "was not sound mentally, but was so eccentric that he frequently seemed demented."

For someone who made himself famous through his "jokes," Mr. Williamson's story turned out to be not very funny at all.