"...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, October 16, 2017

The Year of the Witch

"The Witch," published by George Walker & Co., 1892

The fame that has grown around the "Mary Celeste" mystery tends to obscure the fact that there have been other cases where a ship's crew inexplicably disappeared. Similarly, the notoriety of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 makes it easy to overlook the numerous "witch crazes" that blighted American colonial history. Hartford, Connecticut does not have the sinister reputation of Salem, but in 1662 and 1663, that town went through an episode--enshrined in history as "The Year of the Witch"--that easily rivals its more well-known counterpart.

The grim saga found its origin in a tragic, but hardly uncommon event--the death of a little girl, eight-year-old Elizabeth Kelly. The child had been suffering from a strange illness. The doctors were unable to diagnose her ailment, but her father, John Kelly, had no doubt what had killed his child. He was convinced that a neighbor, Judith Ayres, had put a spell on Elizabeth.

Goodwife Ayres had long been rumored to be a witch, and, it must be said, this reputation was largely of her own doing. If you go around telling your neighbors anecdotes about how you used to go out on dates with Satan, people will talk. On a more prosaic note, both Judith and her husband William were evidently quarrelsome, difficult people who were constantly rubbing everyone the wrong way. Plus, William had what modern-day police would call "form." He had been arrested several times for theft and other misdemeanors.

Among those who had reason to dislike Judith Ayres was John Kelly. He claimed that one day, Judith happened to come across his daughter walking home from church. She followed Elizabeth into the Kelly kitchen, where she took some broth out of a pot boiling on the stove, and insisted the child eat it. No sooner had Elizabeth obeyed this odd command that she collapsed with agonizing stomach pains and became feverish. That night, Elizabeth awakened the household with screams of "Help me! Help me! Goody Ayres chokes me!" For the next five days, the girl suffered terribly. She moaned that Goody Ayres was choking her, pinching her, pricking her with pins, sitting on her stomach so that she feared her bowels would break. She begged her parents to have Ayres arrested. "Oh, father," Elizabeth cried, "set on the great furnace and scald her! Get the broad axe and cut off her head. If you cannot give me a broad axe, get the narrow axe, and chop off her head!" Instead, for whatever reason, the Kellys hired Judith to nurse the child. Perhaps they hoped that being confronted with the girl's torments would cause the "witch" to feel some pity and release Elizabeth from the "curse."

Later that same day, after Judith had left, Elizabeth told her father that Ayres had said to her, "Betty, why do you speak so much against me? I will be even with you before I die, but if you will say no more of me, I will give you a fine lace for your dressing."

If Judith thought this might placate the girl, she was very much mistaken. The very next day, Elizabeth died. Her last words were "Goody Ayres chokes me!"

After all this, it is not surprising that John Kelly insisted that Judith Ayres had murdered his child. An Inquest Committee was soon formed to investigate Elizabeth's peculiar death. These men examined the little body. They noted that her arms were covered in bruises, which they took as confirmation that the "witch" had indeed attacked the child. Judith was brought in, as the committee wished to see if her presence had any effect on the corpse.

It did indeed. When Judith entered the room, "we saw upon the right cheek of the child's face, a reddish tawny great spot, which covered a great part of the cheek, it being on the side next to Goodwife Ayres where she stood, this spot or blotch was not seen before the child was turned." When a physician conducted an autopsy on Elizabeth, he ruled she had died of "preternatural causes." All this was considered to be more than enough proof of Judith's guilt, and she was promptly arrested for witchcraft. Just for good measure, her husband William was arraigned, as well.

Judith and William were subjected to that indispensable part of any good witch trial: the "water test." The couple were bound hand to foot and tossed into a pond. If they floated, that was proof positive they were witches. If they sank, well, at least Judith and William would have the satisfaction of knowing that they would die vindicated.

To no one's real surprise, the pair floated like a pair of corks. A ghastly death at the gallows awaited them.

Luckily for the Ayerses, there were a few people in town who had not come down with the prevailing hysteria. These supporters managed to arrange a jailbreak, and the couple fled to Rhode Island, leaving behind their two sons, ages five and eight. One wonders what sort of lives those boys went on to have.

Unfortunately, the departure of Judith and William did not signal the end of the Hartford witch panic. In truth, it was just getting started. Next to be victimized was another couple, Nathaniel and Rebecca Greensmith. Like the Ayerses, the Greensmiths were unpopular local figures. Rebecca was described as "lewd, ignorant, and considerably aged in years," Nathaniel was a liar and a thief, and they both enjoyed squabbling with their neighbors.

Elizabeth Kelly's "preternatural" death had inspired several other Hartford girls to declare that they, too, were being bewitched. The girls would gather at the meeting house, where fascinated townsfolk would watch them throw fits, make strange cries, and display all the usual signs of demonic torment. It was like a Girl Scout gathering from Hell. One of these girls, Ann Cole, declared that there was a whole coven of witches in Hartford, and one of the worst of the lot was Rebecca Greensmith. She claimed the witches were out to ruin her reputation, so that no man would ever want to marry her. (Why her love life would be of any interest to the coven was never explained.) A man named Robert Stern then added his two cents, stating that he had seen Rebecca and her fellow witches dancing around two large, sinister dark figures while cooking something evil-looking in a kettle. Rebecca was immediately tossed into jail to await her fate.

Ann Cole was the clear star of this Satanic show. Leading clergymen from all over the region came by to interview her--or, rather, to interview the group of devils that spoke "through" her. The chatty demons delighted in forcing Ann to speak unintelligibly, or with a heavy Dutch accent. Naturally, the demons also confirmed that Goodwife Greensmith was a witch.

When Rebecca was confronted with this testimony from the Dark Side, she readily, even eagerly, confessed to being in league with Satan. She was quoted as boasting that "the devil first appeared to her in the form of a deer or fawn, skipping about her, wherewith she was not much affrighted, and that by degrees he became very familiar, and at last would talk with her, moreover she said that the devil frequently had carnal knowledge of her body and that the witches had meetings at a place not far from her house and that some appeared in one shape, and others in another, and one came flying amongst them in the shape of a crow."

Not content with tales of demonic sex and crow witches, Rebecca readily ratted out a number of local names as being part of her coven. Chief amongst the people she accused was her husband, Nathaniel. Rebecca noted that Nathaniel, despite being a small man, had great physical strength--too great to be anything other than supernatural. "When my husband hath told me of his great travail and labor, I wondered at it how he did it; this he did before I was married, and when I was married I asked him how he did it, and he answered me, he had help that I knew not of."

Not convinced yet? Hold on, there's more. Rebecca went on to say, "About three years ago, as I think it, my husband and I were in the woods several miles from home, and were looking for a sow that we lost, and I saw a creature, a red creature, following my husband, and when I came to him I asked him what it was that was with him, and he told me it was a fox...Another time when he and I drove our hogs into the woods beyond the pond that was to keep young cattle, several miles off, I went before the hogs to call them, and looking back I saw two creatures like dogs, one a little blacker than the other; they came after my husband pretty close to him, and one did seem to me to touch him." When Rebecca asked Nathaniel what the creatures were, he again deadpanned, "foxes." She added the suggestive words, "I was still afraid when I saw anything, because I heard so much of him before I married him." She explained her readiness to condemn Nathaniel: "I speak all of this out of love to my husband's soul, and it is much against my will that I am now necessitated to speak against my husband, I desire that the Lord would open his heart to own and speak the truth."

I'm sure that was a great consolation to him.

Rebecca gave a full description of a typical night out with the girls witches: "I also testify, that I being in the woods at a meeting, there was with me Goody Seager, Goodwife Sanford and Goodwife Ayres. And at another time there was a meeting under a tree in the green by our house, and there was James Walkley, Peter Grant's wife, Goodwife Ayers, and Henry Palmer's wife, of Wethersfield, and Goody Seager; and there we danced and had a bottle of sack...It was in the night and something like a cat called me out to the meeting, and I was in Mr. Varlet's orchard with Mrs. Judith Varlet, and she told me that she was much troubled with the marshal, Jonathan Gilbert, and cried; and she said if it lay in her power she would do him a mischief, or what hurt she could."

Rebecca and Nathaniel spent the last month of their lives lodged in the jailer's home while they waited execution. There is no record of how the couple spent their last few weeks together, but I can imagine Mr. Greensmith had much to say to his wife. The couple, along with another condemned witch, Mary Barnes, were hanged on January 25, 1663. On an unknown date somewhere around this time, another "witch," Mary Sanford, also met the hangman. Increase Mather wrote triumphantly that "After the suspected witches were executed...Ann Cole was restored to health, and has continued well for many years."

Ann's subsequent history furnishes an interesting sequel to this story. After the Greensmiths were hanged, their farm was seized by the court. The home was sold to an Andrew Benton, who moved in with his wife and children. Shortly afterward, Mrs. Benton died. The young widower soon remarried...to none other than Ann Cole. She spent many years raising a large family of children and stepchildren under the roof built by the couple she had sent to the gallows.

I'd like to think it gave her an unpleasant dream or two, but I somehow doubt it.

[Note: In October 1993, the "Journal of the American Medical Society" published an article about the Hartford witch trials, focusing on the seminal event of the case, the death of Elizabeth Kelly. The autopsy of Kelly was described as "a bunch of screwups." All the "preternatural" features of Kelly's corpse were easily explained by the normal process of decomposition. Her death, it is now believed, was caused by a combination of pneumonia and sepsis. The latter ailment likely caused delirium, leading the girl to feverishly accuse Judith Ayres of tormenting her.]

Friday, October 13, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This Friday the 13th Link Dump is sponsored by the Lucky Black Cats!

Who the hell invented the zero?

Who the hell were the "Sea People?"

More on the Antikythera shipwreck.

Some bad news about the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It was October 1987 in Great Britain.  Then things got weird.

Lady Sattjeni of Elephantine.

The story of the end of the Bronze Age.

Some strange amnesia cases.  (Warning: goddamned slideshow.)

Halloween superstitions, as seen in 1916.

William, Duke of Clarence talks marriage.  Without much enthusiasm.

John Quincy Adams had a thing for weighing and measuring stuff.

The Iranian City of Polish Children.

Seeing red.  Literally.

The Gimcrack Whim Collector.

When hatpins were a girl's best friend.

19th century cholera remedies.

19th century advice for British ladies going to India.

The tragic case of the first movie star.

The mystery of an ancient Swedish massacre.

Ancient Egyptians, those Crazy Cat People.

The bullied pigeon who managed to escape in a taxi.

The Case of the Castrated Mummy.

Mary Steward escapes from jail, 1799.

The Lion Man of the Ice Age.

Rules for British ghosts.

How one person achieved a posthumous movie career.

Corpses as murder detectives.

Australia's Moon Rock site.

Because I think we're all interested in not being buried alive.

The ghost mansions of Cairo.

An accidental hysterectomy.

The spinster's numeration table.

Oh, just some multicolored ghost cats.

This week in Russian Weird visits the world of Soviet sanatoriums.

Aaaaand...we're done for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll be visiting the world of early American witchcraft.  In the meantime, here's a clip of one of my favorite songs, which I recently found on YouTube.  I've posted another cover of "Last Thing on My Mind" before, but this is without doubt the greatest version I've ever heard.  Joe Frazier simply owns this.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

On March 5, 1925, the "Springfield Leader" carried a story discussing what has to be one of the most useful ghosts on record:
Rice Lake, Wis.--Psychic experts from all parts of the country are reported scurrying here to pass official once-over on the antics of the only bread-baking, floor-scrubbing ghost on record.

The celestial cutup at Rice Lake is one of the most ambitious shades that ever shoved off from the other side in search of respite from heavenly duties and intermixed innocent merriment.

For some time now, the spectre dressed in latest phosphorescent garb has been coming at the stroke of 12 by the village clock to the four-room house of John Kubis and there cleaning up the odds and ends of undone work.

Bread baking seems this ghost's specialty. And you can take the word of Kubis for it, the spook slings an awfully wicked mop.

Mrs. Kubis might have enjoyed the nocturnal helpmate if the visits hadn't gotten on her nerves.

It was quite the thing, she says, to get up on a cold morning and find your floors all scrubbed spick and span by hands from another world.

And the way that ghost could bake biscuits was nothing short of a poem--so nice and brown and just the right texture. They simply melted in your mouth.

But the Kubis family, consisting of the husband, wife, and two daughters, have quit their haunted bungalow with its free, gratis, for nothing spectral retainer.

The ghost started getting clubby. Not satisfied with a mountain of dishes purposefully left over from the day before, it commenced to roam the house, rap on floors and then came up stairs and got in bed with the Kubis daughters, Helen, 13, and Armilla, 11.

The youngsters, when the apparition "disappeared," said they had wanted to scream, but could not.

And Mrs. Kubis on the next night when she went to replenish the fire in the kitchen stove, says she distinctly heard footsteps following close on her heels.

Turning, she saw the portly form of a woman and even distinguished the color of her hair, eyes and the pattern of her dress.

She described the ghost to neighbors, who in turn said it was a dead image of Mrs. Axel Pickman, who had formerly lived in the Kubis home before her death last summer.

The Kubis family are new to this region, having come from Everett, Wash. None of them ever saw the former Mrs. Pickman. But when they were shown photographs of her they became convinced that a real ghost walked their halls and so they quit the place.

Mrs. Kubis hastens to say that they didn't leave because they were afraid, but because the house was cold.

It stands idle today, a little wind-swept affair with boards creaking under the gusts, and is avoided by even the most stolid.

Those who knew the former Mrs. Pickman now recall that she promised to "come back" after her death.

"Maybe spirits do return if they want to make some want known," says Mrs. Kubis. "Maybe Mrs. Pickman was worried about something that she wanted to have straightened out. I am sorry I forgot to speak to her when she was mopping up the kitchen."

Mrs. Kubis, however, wanted to do one kind thing at least for the ghost. When she moved away she left the clock going "so that Mrs. Pickman could see what time it was."

When Mrs. Kubis came to get her clock she found it still fully wound and the hands pointing exactly to 12. The kitchen was freshly scrubbed and there were tear stains on the table. No flour had been left behind. The ghost hadn't been able to do any baking.

All Rice Lake will swear to this. The psychic experts have a job on their hands.
I don't think I'm alone in saying that if Mrs. Pickman is still providing free housekeeping services, she is welcome to come clean my kitchen and bake biscuits any old day.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Folly of John Banvard

History loves its rags-to-riches tales. The rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags stories tend to get buried as general embarrassments. One of America's most striking examples of this is John Banvard, who went from the richest artist in the world to a largely-forgotten historical footnote.

Banvard was born in New York City in 1815. His father Daniel was a successful builder. The family was prosperous until 1831, when Daniel Banvard suddenly died. This tragedy was compounded when his business partner took advantage of the situation by fleeing with all the company's assets, leaving the Banvards poverty-stricken nearly overnight.

Young John, like many energetic but needy young men, left home in search of better opportunities. He found one in 1833, when the owner of a Louisville showboat gave him a job. He showed an aptitude for painting and sketching large canvases, which gave him the ambition of going into the showboat business for himself. The following year--through what was apparently a flat-out swindle--he and a few friends acquired enough capital to launch their own floating theater company. They would sail up and down the Mississippi in a converted flatboat, displaying Banvard's large landscape paintings and staging primitive performances of the popular plays of the time. It wasn't exactly the pinnacle of show business greatness, but it kept the boys alive until a stage manager decided he liked young Banvard's work enough to hire him as a scene painter. It was at this time that he began to get involved in the hottest entertainment trend of the day, the "Panorama."

"Panoramas" probably could best be described as a "Flintstones" version of motion pictures. They consisted of one very long loop of canvas with painted-on scenery, that was slowly wound from one spool to another around the audience, giving the impression of continuous movement. As in the later silent film era, the impression was enhanced by live musical accompaniment and clever lighting. Primitive though it may sound to us, audiences of that day had never seen anything like it, and the shows were wildly popular.

Banvard, who already had experience creating giant canvases, naturally gravitated to this new phenomenon. His first effort was a 100' long canvas he called "Infernal Regions." He sold it in 1841 for what was, to him at that time, a large amount of money. Banvard saw no reason why he could not become king of the panoramas. He decided he was going to present the biggest, most awe-inspiring canvas the world had yet seen.

He was going to paint the portrait of the entire Mississippi river.

In the spring of 1842, he set off in a skiff to capture on canvas some 1200 miles of river, from St. Louis to New Orleans. It took him two years of dealing with blistering heat and yellow fever in the summer, rain and cold in the winter. While he worked, he made a threadbare living by selling and trading whatever small items he could find. It was an arduous adventure, but he did it, and when he was finished, he knew that what he had was very, very good. It may not quite have been, as the advertisements boasted, three miles long, but it came damn close. It was the largest painting in the world.

1848 sketch of a panorama designed by Banvard

His next necessity was to create an entirely new system of spools and levers capable of handling this unprecedentedly huge canvas. He succeeded so well that he patented the device. Finally, in 1844, he was able to present his leviathan of a panorama in Louisville. He accompanied the exhibit with his own narration, giving highly-colored but immensely entertaining anecdotes about his travels down the river. He was not only a born panorama painter, but a natural showman. Within a few days, it was a huge success.

In December 1846, he brought his "Three-Mile Painting" to Boston, which was at that time America's biggest entertainment market. By this time, his now-practiced narration was enhanced by a classical concert pianist. It was considered an enthralling blend of visual, spoken, and musical art.

Banvard became the toast of Boston. It is estimated that some 250,000 people paid the fifty-cent admission to view this unprecedented spectacle, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was inspired to write his epic poem "Evangeline." In less than a year, he made a profit of some $100,000. The former river rat was now the highest-paid artist in the country. He even gained a wife out of this show--Elizabeth Goodman, his pianist.

In 1847, he brought his show to New York, where the crowds were just as adulatory and even bigger than the Bostonians. It was hailed as "a monument of native talent and American genius." Money was coming in faster than he or anyone else could count it. He was basking in critical acclaim, as well. The intelligentsia saw his panorama not as meaningless entertainment for the masses, but as a landmark in America's educational and artistic development.

Banvard's "Journey to the Ohio River"

The following year, Banvard took his canvas to England, where it drew an estimated half-million visitors. He was canny enough to capitalize on his fame by producing a quickie autobiography, "Banvard, the Adventures of an Artist," which was also a huge success. He was even summoned to Windsor Castle to give a private performance for the queen. He always looked back on that as the greatest moment of his life.

Naturally, such immense critical and financial success brought him a host of imitators. By 1850, London had over fifty competing "panorama" shows. Banvard realized that it was time for him to present something new. What he came up with was, in effect, a sequel. His original panorama showed the eastern bank of the Mississippi. His new work showed the western bank. While his first panorama was still on display in London, Banvard brought out his new scene, which attracted some 100,000 customers. He then took it to Paris, where it drew huge crowds for the next two years.

His career next took a somewhat surprising turn. While in London, he became enthralled by the Egyptian artifacts he saw in the Royal Museum. He even learned how to read hieroglyphics--a skill even rarer in those times than it is today. He acquired so much knowledge about Egyptology that when he returned to America, he did a successful lecture tour on the subject.

He used his new skills to make a tour of the Middle East. He created two groundbreaking panoramas showing Palestine and the Nile river. These new paintings did decent business, but nothing like his original show. The public, predictable in its fickleness, was already getting bored with panoramas and glutted by the many imitators who had followed in Banvard's wake.

Banvard realized that it was time for him to retire. In 1852, he built a massive, lavish estate on Long Island. He patterned it after Windsor Castle, which was fitting for the Panorama King. He named it "Glenada," in honor of his daughter Ada. However, his neighbors, who found the mansion ridiculously showy, snidely nicknamed it "Banvard's Folly."

Banvard's sketch of Glenada

It mattered little to Banvard what the neighbors thought. He was one of the richest men in America, the most financially successful painter in history. He had a loving family, some incredible memories, and all the money anyone could ever want. He even wrote a play, "Amasis, or the Last of the Pharoahs," for which he also painted the sets. It was probably just as ridiculous as its title, but it proved to be a respectable critical and financial success.

If the artist had only been content to spend his life in luxurious rustication, we'd have here the perfect American fairy-tale. Unfortunately, Banvard blew it all through a combination of boredom, hubris, and a lack of awareness about his limitations.

The 1850s saw the rise of another showman who is far better remembered today: P.T. Barnum. As this rival huckster and his "American Museum" began to steal Banvard's limelight, the former Panorama King grew jealous of all the attention Barnum was getting. Besides, Banvard had led an active life ever since adolescence, and his quiet home life, no matter how comfortable, was beginning to grate on his nerves. He plotted a comeback. He decided that he would set himself up as a direct rival to Barnum. Banvard would use his knowledge of Egyptology to open his own museum, showcasing the collection of artifacts he had acquired during his trip to the Middle East.

It would not have been a bad idea, except that Banvard completely overlooked one crucial detail: He had no idea how to run anything approximating a business, and worse, seemed unaware of the necessity of surrounding himself with people who did. He and an old friend, William Lillienthal--who was as ignorant of managing such an enterprise as Banvard--began by offering stock options in the new Banvard Museum. Many of New York's elite bought this stock without bothering to check its legitimacy. Banvard's name still held a lot of glamor, and these financiers simply trusted his acumen. Banvard also paid for the building of the museum by giving workers and suppliers shares of this stock, instead of money.

There was just one problem. Banvard and Lillienthal had no idea that they were required to register his business with the state of New York. This meant that, in reality, these stock certificates were literally not worth the paper they were printed on.

The museum opened in Manhattan on June 1867. It was the brick-and-mortar equivalent of a panorama: A vast 40,000 square-foot building hosting lecture rooms, Banvard's collection of antiquities, and, taking pride of place in the center of the museum, his original Mississippi panorama. Banvard advertised the museum as the cultured, educational alternative to Barnum's gleefully tacky emporium.

Barnum, figuratively speaking at least, spat in his eye. This new rival may have had the culture, but Barnum had the PR genius. His spies made careful notes about all that was attractive about Banvard's Museum, and then Barnum put on his own cheap, cheesy, but brilliantly-advertised knock-offs of them. Banvard may have been a good showman, but Barnum was an epically great one. As always in show business, self-promotion is the only talent you really need.

Within weeks of his museum's grand opening, Banvard found himself in serious hot water. Barnum was outdrawing him. His creditors were beginning to scream for their payments. Worst of all, his shareholders were finally discovering that their stock certificates were good for nothing more than lighting cigarettes. In desperation, he reinvented the museum, now called "Banvard's Grand Opera House and Museum." In addition to the exhibits, it offered plays and dancing exhibitions. Sadly, this reboot was an even bigger flop.

Banvard now really had built his Folly. Thanks to a combination of the museum failure, the enormous expenses involved in running Glenada, and the financial panic of 1873, most of his fortune was gone. His name was now anathema in New York. He sold the museum building. The capable new owners renamed it "Daly's Theatre," and it became a great success.

Banvard retreated to Glenada rather in the manner of Napoleon retreating from Moscow. He tried to get other projects off the ground, but after the museum disaster, no investor in his right mind wanted anything to do with him.

His downward spiral continued when he tried turning author. In 1875, he published a book about England's George IV. It was soon revealed that his work plagiarized a book from the 1830s. He followed this up with a play called "Corrina, a Tale of Sicily." This proved to be a rip-off of someone else's work, as well. After this twin fiasco, Banvard was not just broke, he was a public laughingstock.

In 1883, he was forced to sell Glenada. The contents all went to paying off creditors. About the only possession Banvard had left was his Mississippi panorama--and that was simply because no one wanted it. At this point, the canvas must have been a bitterly painful reminder of long-lost glories. Banvard and his wife, having nowhere else to go, moved in with their son Eugene in Watertown, a village in what is now South Dakota. What finally became of his once-celebrated panorama is unknown. I wouldn't have blamed Banvard if he had burned it.

In 1886, Banvard made one last effort to recapture the past. He created a panorama depicting Sherman's 1865 destruction of the city of Columbia, South Carolina, complete with special effects of his own design. It apparently was a splendid show, and would have been a great success--forty years earlier. By the time he unveiled "The Burning of Columbia," panoramas were considered passe, and, in any case, the Dakota Territories were inauspicious places to launch a Hollywood-style extravaganza. Banvard spent most of his remaining years writing curious but sadly wretched poetry, dealing with everything from local Watertown events to such esoteric topics as Egyptology and Freemasonry:
And now pious men have the field in their care,
And good pilgrims from far go thither for prayer.
That perfume still ascends, and will ever ascend,
Ascend o'er the world with its aroma sweet
Where two Masons commune, there pervades that perfume,
And the sweetest of strains their fellowship greet;
Wherever two brothers in fellowship stand,
That field has an emblem in every land.

Banvard also authored a treatise on shorthand. He died in 1891, largely forgotten by the world.

Among Banvard's few remaining possessions was an aged little piece of paper. It was a bill for $15.51, the cost of his father's burial back in 1831. The Banvards had been too poor to ever pay it. For sixty years, through all his adventures and his incredible ups and downs, Daniel Banvard's son had kept this reminder of personal loss and humiliating poverty. Why did he so carefully preserve this paper? No one knows. It serves as this strange man's own "Rosebud."

As it happened, this old unpaid bill served as a mirror of John Banvard's own end. His surviving relatives did not have the money for a proper funeral, so he was buried in a pauper's grave.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Maurice Boulanger's Cats of October!

Why the hell did Tasmanian Tigers disappear?

How the hell were the statues at Easter Island built?

Who the hell betrayed Anne Frank?

Where the hell is El Dorado?

Watch out for those Japanese bathroom ghosts!

Watch out for the Fighting Fairy Woman!

Watch out for the skull-faced bishop!

The history behind Lady Frankland's fan.

France's most scandalous witch hunt.

"Lost" literary works.

New video of a 16th century shipwreck.

The premiere of Beethoven's Fifth was a Monty Python sketch.

Was Scott's Antarctic expedition sabotaged?

The girl with Napoleon eyes.

Crown Prince Rudolf and the medium.

The scholar and the fairies.

The homeland of vampires.

Want to visit the library?  Stay in a hotel?  Here you can do both.

18th century unhappy marriages.

Georgian era "melancholy accidents."

Kids, don't count on getting any gifts this Christmas.

A freaking old Norwegian petroglyph.

An 18th century murder in Bedfordshire.

In which we learn that Napoleon disliked some of the damnedest things.

In which Peter Cohen builds my dream home.

William Howard Taft and the ghostly "Thing."

The curse of Rowland Jenkins.

18th and 19th century French vehicles.

The case of the photographed extraterrestrial.

The case of the murdered monkey.

Morbid humor in the Georgian era.

The Phantom Pharmacist.

The stray dog who became the Guardian of the Snow.

The Hollywood Cliff Murder.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  Reconsider those plans to become a lion-tamer.

A "most unconventional librarian."

The ghost and the little skeleton.

New York's Great Catnip Caper.

A famed salesman of almanacks and fish.

Slum tourism meets Potemkin villages.

Victorian handcuff bracelets.

The unsolved murders at Lava Lake.

Professional walkers in the Regency era.

Dollhouses of death.

Entertainment at the Eagle Tavern.

Surgery in 14th century China.

And so ends this week's Link Dump.  See you on Monday, when we'll look at the most famous painter you've probably never heard of.  In the meantime, here's my favorite Tom Petty song. R.I.P.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Every now and then, I come across an old newspaper story that is impossible to characterize as anything other than "Really Freaking Weird." This item from the "Chicago Tribune" (January 2, 1888) is one of them.
Nebraska Letter to "Kansas City Journal": William S. Aimison, a farm-hand working for  a man by the name of Bills, about fourteen miles west of this city, was in the city Friday, and related a strange story, which in substance was as follows:

He says he was married in Illinois about six years ago and three years later his wife died very suddenly. He attended the funeral, as a matter of course, looked for the last time upon the face he had loved in life, now cold in death, saw the coffin closed, lowered into the grave, and heard that awful sound as the earth from the grave-digger's shovel fell upon the coffin-lid that hid from sight all that he held dear in this world. Shortly after the death and burial of his wife he removed to Kansas and for the last year has been in Nebraska. In all this there is nothing singular; such things happen every day.

Now comes the strange part of his story. He says that shortly after he reached Kansas he received a letter, dated and postmarked at his old home in Illinois, signed by his wife's name, "Lulu," and unmistakably in her handwriting. Of this latter fact he is assured, as he compared the handwriting with that of several letters received from his wife before his marriage, which he still has in his possession. She said in the letter that she was very lonely, missed him greatly, and implored him to return to her. The only singular thing to one not knowing the facts of the case was a sentence something like this: “You all thought I died, but I did not, and am much better than when I saw you last.” To the latter part of this sentence Aimison could or would not attempt an explanation. Otherwise the letter was such as any wife might write to an absent husband.

Since then at irregular intervals he has received other letters, all couched in endearing language, but making no attempt to explain the mystery. One came from Concordia, Kas., near which place he was located before coming to Nebraska. In this the writer bitterly bewailed the fact of his leaving before she reached him.

At first Aimison thought some of his former acquaintances in Illinois were playing a ghastly practical joke, but after receiving several letters began to feel disturbed, and sent them back to his wife's parents in Illinois. They agreed with him that the handwriting was that of their daughter, but could offer no explanation. He answered one of the letters, addressing it, "Mrs. W.S. Aimison," and it was returned to him at this city from the Dead-Letter Office. The last letter received from his "wife" came about three weeks ago, dated at Table Rock, this state, and stated that "Lulu" was there sick, out of money, and asking him to come to her relief. Aimison left immediately upon receipt of this letter for Table Rock.

Upon investigation after his arrival he found that a woman had been at the hotel there, arriving several days before he did. She was sick when she reached there, confined to her room most of the time, and left after a week's stay for no one knew where. In the register at the hotel he found the name "Mrs. Lulu Aimison," no place of residence being given. The handwriting was identical with that of the letters he had received. The description of the woman given by people at the hotel was almost identical with that of his wife the last time he saw her alive. There were slight discrepancies, but nothing but what three years' time accounts for. Aimison, now thoroughly aroused and determined to get at the bottom of the affair, left at once for Illinois and had the remains of his wife exhumed, finding them as they had been buried: there could be no mistake about that. The question is, Who sent the letters and who is the woman? Mr. Aimison is a fairly educated man, not at all superstitious, but acknowledges that the affair has worried him a great deal. His reputation here is good, his employer speaking very highly of him. He says if he receives any more letters he will not allow them to trouble him, but will make an earnest effort to discover their author, and when he does has promised to tell what happens.
I've found nothing further about this story, suggesting that Aimison never did find out what in the hell was going on.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Lambert/Orpet Riddle: Who Had the Cyanide?

Eighteen-year-old Marion Lambert could have been Lake Forest, Illinois’ top candidate for All-American Girl. The pretty young woman was vivacious, popular with her peers, doted on by her parents, with a highly promising future ahead of her. To all appearances, she had every reason to be completely happy.

But, as we all know, appearances are very often deceiving.

On February 8th, 1916, she received a mysterious phone call. The next morning, Marion began, as usual, to head to her high school classes. At the train station she stopped and told a friend she would go to the post office to mail letters first, and catch up later.

As far as anyone knew, nothing was amiss until later that day, when her father waited at the train station to pick her up. She never arrived. At their home, her parents waited up all night for her in vain. Around dawn, her increasingly frantic father returned to the station, where in the early morning light he noticed two sets of footprints—one large, the other small—leading into a small clearing in the nearby forest. In that clearing, Frank Lambert finally found his daughter. She was lying on her side, quite cold and dead. Her lips were blistered and frothed with blood, and there was a residue of white powder in one hand. The autopsy would find that she had died from swallowing cyanide.

A search was immediately made for the person—assumed to be a man, by the footprints—who had walked into the clearing with her. Those who knew Marion immediately suspected he was 21-year-old William Orpet.

Orpet had known Marion since childhood. In recent months, after he had enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, their relationship gradually become more serious. They had gone from exchanging friendly letters to passionately romantic ones, and finally, when he was back in town on a visit, they became intimate—exactly how intimate they were is unclear. In any case, Marion was in love and believed they would marry.

Perhaps Orpet had initially felt the same. However, as has so often happened in the course of human history, once he had his “conquest,” the young man’s interest quickly began to dwindle. Back at the University, his letters to Marion became increasingly sparse and unemotional. When the girl wrote of her fears that she was pregnant, that just made him all the more anxious to distance himself from her. He even, behind her back, became engaged to another woman.

When Orpet was contacted at his Madison lodgings, he pronounced himself shocked at news of Marion’s death, but he insisted they had never been anything more than casual friends, thus kicking off a long chain of remarkably stupid lies he would tell regarding Marion Lambert. He admitted sending her what he told her were abortifacient drugs, (they were actually harmless placebos,) but denied he could possibly have made her pregnant. (Marion's autopsy established she was not pregnant—in fact, she was still a virgin when she died.) He said he had written her a “friendly” letter, apologizing for being unable to make it to Lake Forest to see her.

The police did find such a letter in the Post Office. However, they also found in Marion’s room a very different letter from Orpet, promising to come to town and meet her on February 9th. The letter in the Post Office seemed merely a clumsy effort to establish an alibi. The police, figuring they had found the Lambert poisoner, proceeded to grill the young man, as the saying goes, like a cheese sandwich.

Unfortunately for himself, Orpet proved to have about the same brains and backbone of a piece of bread and cheese. Under pressure, he stammered, flailed, tried to stonewall, and lied, lied, lied. In the final version of his story, he finally admitted to a romance with Marion, which, on his side at least, soon ended. Marion began pestering him with messages, threatening to kill herself if he refused to see her. Finally, he agreed to meet her in the woods on February 9th. There was a confrontation where she begged him to return to her. He refused, and told her of his plans to marry another. Finally, he began to walk away from the crying girl. When he heard a sudden scream, he turned back to see her lying on the snow, convulsing. When he realized she was dead, he ran away in fear and took the next train back to Madison.

Pretty flimsy stuff, all in all. And when investigators discovered that Orpet’s father, a caretaker on a local estate, used cyanide in his work, it was easy for a grand jury to indict Orpet for murder. Here was motive, opportunity, and now means, all wrapped up in one extremely unsympathetic package. Before his trial, it took nearly a month to find enough jurymen willing to say they had an open mind about the young man’s guilt.

However, as the trial unfolded, it gradually looked as if Orpet’s culpability was not quite as certain as everyone had thought. Marion’s friends admitted on the stand that she had threatened suicide if Orpet dumped her, and that she admitted knowing she was not pregnant. In fact, the more that was learned about Marion, the more evident it became that this seemingly happy-go-lucky girl had a hidden side that was moody, even neurotic. One of Marion’s teachers revealed that soon before her death, she was found alone in the high school’s chemistry lab, where she would have known cyanide was stored. Orpet himself did not make a good witness—he was, on his own testimony, a dishonest, cowardly scoundrel—but he stubbornly insisted Marion had taken the poison herself.

Finally, three chemists took the stand. They explained that Marion had died as a result of ingesting potassium cyanide—the exact type found in her high school lab. However, what had been found in the greenhouse used by the senior Orpet was sodium cyanide—potentially deadly, yes, but a completely different substance, and in a form where Marion would have had to drink a gallon of the brew for it to kill her.

And with that, the once-airtight case against Will Orpet collapsed like a pricked balloon.

After deliberating five hours, the jury found him “Not Guilty.” Orpet was free, but it was a decidedly mixed blessing. His friends largely turned against him. The University of Wisconsin declined to have him grace their campus any longer. His fiancĂ©e publicly declared she wanted nothing to do with him. He may have been innocent in a court of law, but the court of public opinion found him morally, if not literally, culpable in a young woman’s death. Orpet served in World War I, and, as far as history knows, led a quietly uninteresting life until his death in 1948.

Marion Lambert’s death is still usually described as an “unsolved mystery,” but personally, I do not see it that way. William Orpet was certainly a liar. However, I do not believe he was also a murderer.

In the 1950s, chemist and author Otto Eisenschiml formulated a “third way” theory about the case, arguing that Marion did not die as the result of murder or deliberate suicide. He suggested that this “impetuous” girl “given to dramatic acts,” stole the potassium cyanide as a ploy. Without realizing just how deadly the poison was, she took a gulp of the crystals in front of Orpet as a “final dramatic effort” to scare him into agreeing to marry her. She unwittingly took enough to instantly kill her. His theory is well-argued, but I don’t find it convincing. While she may have obtained the cyanide in an effort to force Orpet’s hand, when she saw it wasn’t going to work, I suspect that in her anger and humiliation--and no one feels more anger and humiliation than a teenager who has been jilted for the first time--Marion’s “impetuous” nature caused her to impulsively commit suicide. If she had given herself even a moment of reflection, she may well have changed her mind about wanting to die—but cyanide does not allow for second thoughts.