"...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, September 30, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

One finds many peculiar "personal ads" in the old newspapers, but this may be the most what-in-freaking-hell one I've seen to date. It appeared regularly in the "New York Evening Post" during July and August of 1807:

A report that a monstrous birth, bearing no marks of the human form, has lately occurred in this city, has within these few weeks been industriously circulated. The malignity of the infamous authors and propagators of that report, whoever they may be, has been carried so far as to fix the detestable charge upon a Young Lady of spotless innocence and merit--and, as if the villains were determined that the tale should gain belief, they have even affected to designate the Physicians who attended at the Birth.

We, therefore, who are the physicians so said to have given our attendance, and who have hereto subscribed our names do most solemnly and unequivocally declare that we have no knowledge of any such occurrence, or of any birth by the lady alluded to; and that from our souls we believe the report to have originated in the most diabolical malice, and to be totally destitute of foundation.

Dated July 31, 1807.


P.S. Attempts are making by the friends of the young lady, to trace the calumny to its source, for the purpose of inflicting legal and exemplary punishment; and a reward of One Hundred Dollars is hereby offered to any person who will give information of the original author or authors, so as to convict him, her, or them in a court of justice.

It may not be amiss to caution every person against propagating the aforesaid calumny, as, by so doing, they make themselves equally liable in law with the inventor. The peculiar nature of this case is such that the friends of the injured feel themselves justified in saying that they are determined to take every measure within their power to put a speedy end to so cruel and unprecedented a slander.

The printers of country papers, in whose vicinity the tale may have been disseminated, will vindicate injured innocence, and subserve the cause of justice and humanity, by inserting the preceding.

Does anyone else suspect that all these "vindication" efforts by the friends of this nameless young lady just resulted in an early 19th century version of the Streisand Effect?

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Witch of Ringtown; a Medieval 20th Century Murder

"True!--nervous--very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses--not destroyed--not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily--how calmly, I can tell you the whole story."
~ Edgar Allan Poe, "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Anyone who believes that we live in an age dominated by science and skepticism needs to study the history of Pennsylvania. In the rural areas of the state, a belief in witches, hexes, powerful spirits and the like was common until well into the 20th century--for all I know, it still quietly exists today. Remote farm communities saw superstition and folklore not as quaint relics of a medieval past, but as all-too real presences in their lives. Sometimes, these beliefs took the benign forms of good-luck charms, folk medicine, and positive spirituality. At other times, however, believers found themselves haunted by sincerely-held fears of curses and ghostly persecutions.

On occasion, these fears led these tormented souls to defend themselves through acts of violence, even murder. Probably the most famous example is the case of Nelson Rehmeyer. In 1928, a Central Pennsylvania "witch" named Nellie Noll convinced a young man named John Blymire that Rehmeyer had put a curse on him. Blymire and two friends, John Curry and Wilbert Hess, broke into Rehmeyer's home in order to steal a "spell book" they believed he owned. They were unable to find this book, but when Rehmeyer accosted them, the trio gruesomely killed him, in the hope of lifting this curse. The three youths were eventually convicted of the murder. One of the many oddities of the case is that the killers had never before committed any criminal offense, and after their release from prison went on to lead thoroughly normal, law-abiding lives.

Although the following "hex murder" is now largely forgotten, it was very similar to the Rehmeyer case, and, in some respects, even more bizarre.

Our story opens in 1934, in the Pennsylvania farming village of Ringtown. Life there had only a speaking acquaintance with the 20th century. Scarcely any residents had electricity or modern plumbing, and telephones were nonexistent. Among its residents was a sixty-three year old widow named Susannah "Susan" Mummey. She lived in a primitive farmhouse in the hills just outside of town with her adopted daughter Tovillia.

The Mummey farmhouse

Back in 1910, Susan had had a premonition.  A vision or dream told her that if on July 5 of that year,  her husband Henry went to his job at a local powder mill, he would die. Although she begged him to stay home on that day, he laughingly dismissed her fears and went to work as usual.

You guessed it. On that very day, Henry was killed when a workplace accident caused a violent explosion.

The tragic event earned Susan Mummey not sympathy, but fear. The deadly accuracy of her premonition caused her neighbors to think of her as a witch--and, considering what had happened to Henry, possibly a dangerous one. From that time on, Ringtown regarded her with a mixture of awe and deep suspicion.

On the evening of March 17, Susan and Tovillia were living with a boarder named Jacob Rice. Rice was staying there because he had a serious foot injury that Mummey was doctoring. (Like many so-called witches, Mummey had some proficiency in the healing arts.)

Before going to bed, Mummey went to change Rice's bandage. As she bent over his foot, the cottage seemed to suddenly explode. The inhabitants heard a frightening roar, and the living room window shattered. The wind coming through the broken glass extinguished their lamps, leaving the stunned trio in darkness. They heard a second blast, which they now recognized as the sound of a gun. Someone out in that black night was trying to kill them.

They crouched on the floor, terrified by the thought of what might happen next. But there was only silence. After a few minutes had passed, Rice finally worked up the nerve to sit up. He could see nothing, and all he heard was the sound of Tovillia whimpering in fear. He called out Susan's name, but got no response. He managed to light a lamp, which illuminated Mrs. Mummey's motionless body on the floor. He saw at once that she was dead.

The two shaken survivors sat huddled together in the darkness, waiting for the morning light to come. At dawn, Rice set out to find help. Tovillia was too hysterical to make the effort. Despite his injured foot, Rice managed to limp to the home of their nearest neighbor, which was over a mile away. This neighbor drove him into town so they could summon police.

Investigators found that Mummey had been shot once through the chest. In one of the walls they found embedded a hand-made bullet, of the sort that was common in the area.

Although the victim had led a quiet, reclusive life, it soon emerged that there was no shortage of people who might have wished her dead. Mummey was a quarrelsome sort who had feuded with most of her neighbors--something that only exacerbated her sinister occult reputation. She was believed to have turned an "evil eye" on one of her enemies, and "hexed" several others. A great sigh of relief went out over Ringwood when it was learned she was dead. In short, the police were confronted with a plethora of possible suspects.

Soon, however, their focus was centered on one man. Three days after the murder, some local boys told the detective in charge of the case that on the night Mummey was shot, they had seen a car parked on the road leading to the victim's home. No one was in the car, but they immediately recognized it as belonging to a 23-year-old named Albert Shinsky.

Shinsky was a polite, well-behaved, good-natured young man with an exemplary reputation. Everyone who knew him liked him. His family was equally well-respected in the community, and he was fortunate enough to be engaged to Selina Bernstel, a pretty, charming girl who adored him. It would be hard to think of anyone less likely to assassinate a defenseless old woman.

Shinsky's life was happy and uneventful until he reached the age of 17. Then, he gradually changed. The once-energetic boy became increasingly lethargic. He lost the energy to work, or do much of anything else. He became thin and haggard-looking. The young man became a shell of his former self, and no one could explain why. Unable to hold down any job requiring physical or mental exertion, Shinsky earned a meager living as a taxi driver for the local mine workers.

When questioned by the police, Shinsky acknowledged being near the Mummey house at the time of the murder. When asked why he was there, he calmly gave a startling reply: "I went out there to kill Mrs. Mummey."

Things only got weirder from there. Without the slightest hesitation, Shinsky treated the detectives to the strangest motive for murder any of them had ever heard. The young man explained that when he was seventeen, he had been working for a farmer who had gotten into a long, extremely bitter fight with Mrs. Mummey over property boundaries between their respective lands. One day, as Shinsky was walking through the disputed land, he saw Mrs. Mummey standing a short distance away, staring at him. Under her hostile gaze, the youth broke out in a cold sweat. He felt like there were hands gripping his throat.

From that day on, he said, he felt a constant "physical and mental torment" that sapped him of all his strength. Susan Mummey had put a hex on him.

Shinsky emotionally described how he constantly felt invisible hands on his shoulders. Pins were stuck into him. A black cat would come down from the sky and attack him while he slept. He tried going to doctors and priests, but they were of no help. What could they or anyone else do against the power of the Devil? In desperation, he consulted some local witch doctors, who gave him various amulets and spells, but they provided only temporary relief. The cat always came back.

Finally, a "spirit" came to him, explaining that the only way he could be free of the hex was if he killed Susan Mummey. So, on the night of March 17, he borrowed a shotgun, loaded it with a "magic bullet" guaranteed to kill witches, and made his way to the Mummey farm.

Shinsky did not enjoy committing murder, but, he cheerfully explained, it worked! Since Mummey's death, he was "a re-born man." He had no regrets whatsoever for what he had done. Indeed, he radiated a joy and relief that these hardened investigators found uniquely disturbing.

Selina Bernstel

Selina Bernstel confirmed much of Shinsky's story. She had no doubt that he had been "bewitched." ("My cousin used to be visited by the ghost of an old woman who cast a spell over her.") Her affection for him had a strongly maternal quality. Selina both loved and pitied this haunted young man who would tell her that she "was the only friend he had." She described him as a "little puppy dog" and a "lost soul." The hex, she quietly told the police, had begun to affect her, as well. She would periodically wake up in the morning to see a vision of Shinsky standing at the foot of her bed, his face grimacing in pain. Every time this happened, she'd find out that he had been visited by the evil cat or the spirit-figure of Susan Mummey herself, "leering and leering at him." Selina said that Shinsky had repeatedly begged Mummey to lift the hex from him, but she refused. Selina often asked Shinsky to marry her, but he refused, saying "the witch wouldn't let him."

Although Selina had not known he had committed murder, she admitted that she "knew something had happened, because Albert seemed different and more gay...He acted as if something had been taken off of him." She was too happy with his transformation to ask any questions.

After his arrest, Shinsky became something of a local hero. Other men went to the police alleging that Susan Mummey had cast spells on them, as well--hexes that were only broken with her death. Townsfolk raised a defense fund for him. The murderer himself remained happy and unconcerned. Even the thought of facing the electric chair didn't faze him. "I don't care," he said. "I'm at peace."  Selina expressed her willingness to marry him while he still sat in his prison cell, but Shinsky refused any thought of such a dismal wedding.  He told reporters he expected to be released soon, after which he looked forward to "marrying my girl."

The court hardly knew what to make of this young man. The story he told was deeply, utterly crazy, but aside from that, Shinsky appeared calm and rational. He indignantly rejected any suggestion of an insanity defense.

Psychiatrists who interviewed him thought otherwise. They came up with a diagnosis of Dementia Praecox, manifesting itself as paranoid delusions, and recommended that he be sent to Fairview State Hospital for the criminally insane. The judge in the case agreed.

Unfortunately for Shinsky, Fairview could give witches and demon cats a run for their money. It had an evil reputation, that, sadly, was entirely justified. It was an unsupervised hellhole where even basic medical care was virtually nonexistent. Guards and staff routinely abused the patients, sometimes to the point of killing them. There were sinister rumors of secret graveyards around the building. It was not a hospital, but an unregulated dumping ground, and would remain so until well into the 1970s. If you were not insane when you entered Fairview, odds were good that you soon would be.

Shinsky disappeared into this living nightmare, never, it seemed, to be heard from again. The world forgot about him until 1968, when a lawyer named William J. Krencewicz learned of the case, which inspired him to lead an effort to have Shinsky reexamined by psychiatrists. Shinsky himself was eager to have his case reopened, even if it meant standing trial for the murder if he was judged to be sane. "I was a stupid, foolish, superstitious young man when I did [the murder], but I do think I've been punished enough."

The issue of what to do with Shinsky dragged through the courts until January 1976, when a judge ruled that he was competent to stand trial. However, the authorities apparently agreed that Shinsky was indeed "punished enough," as I could not find any record that this trial ever took place. Shinsky may well have been released without ever being tried for a murder no one doubted he committed. He went back to Ringtown, where he lived quietly until his death in 1983.

I have found nothing about Tovillia's subsequent life other than the fact that she continued to live in the Ringtown area until her death in 1963. In 1938, Selina Bernstel married a Charles Betterton. She died in Towanda, Pennsylvania, in 2003.

I have long thought that the great tragedy of our species is that--despite our fondness for psychological pigeonholing--our minds and souls are too strange for us to ever understand.  How does one categorize Albert Shinsky, an otherwise sane young man who fell into the grip of a belief most people would call utterly insane?   Did that make him crazy? Or merely all too human?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by one of our favorite organizations, the Fellowship of Lucky Black Cats:

Who the hell killed Huey Long?

Who the hell were the Polish vampires?

Who the hell is "Benjaman Kyle?"  Now he knows, even if we don't.

What the hell is this air raid siren?

What the hell happened in Great Wyrley?

Watch out for those pixies!

Watch out for those Siberian Traps!

Watch out for those ghost dancers!

Watch out for those headless rectory-robbing ghosts!

Watch out for that causality!

Britain is really booming!

George Canning, the politician who was both hated and indispensable.

That time Indiana had a millionaire policewoman.

The loyalty of dogs.

A visit to Samuel Pepys' church.

Scottish cave with some ghoulish ancient relics.

A Swedish island with some puzzling ancient relics.

Some photos from back when Los Angeles was still a fun place to live.

How an 18th century Englishwoman became The Black Widow of Jamaica.

Opium addiction in the early 19th century English countryside.

The King's Caracal.

Another example of why the 18th century was the Golden Age of sex scandals.

Another example of why the 18th century was the Golden Age of Eccentrics.

Gambling with death.

A pre-Roman grave has been found in Pompeii.

Eating like a Hittite, or why archaeologists have the coolest buffet tables.

How to be a professional corpse.

WWI, the bar fight.

Yes, Virginia, there is a con man.

A century-old murder is finally confirmed.

The apple trees are mighty strange in Ukraine.

Well, all righty.

A sailor cat's well-earned retirement.

Celebrating St. Matthew's Day.

The man who bought Stonehenge.

Is "America's Stonehenge" a hoax?

How to be swindled in 19th century London.

Aboriginals have long memories.

The costs of an early 19th century execution.

This one's for all you lorgnette fans.

Almond puddings in guts, anyone?

An utterly charming Lake District home.

An unusual 19th century acquittal.

The death of an apple pie.

Samuel Johnson's diploma.

The treacherous 19th century cat.

This week in Russian Weird.

Flappers run amok!

And, finally, a couple of friends sharing a relaxing weekend.

And we're done for the week! See you on Monday, when I'll be looking at a tale of witchcraft and murder. In the meantime, here's the Scottish Fiddle Orchestra. Goodnight and safe home!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

The, well, next-to-last rites of the gloriously named Mr. Buffenbarger is possibly the most delightful funeral I've come across. From the "Muskogee Times Democrat," September 9, 1910:

Springfield, O., Sept. 9--The funeral of Francis Marion Buffenbarger was attended by 500 people who went to the Grape Grove cemetery led by the "corpse" (on foot,) listened to a funeral oration delivered by the "corpse" in person, and feasted on pies and such that the aforesaid "corpse" passed around with his own hands. But they were not clammy either. Gnarled and horny perhaps, but not clammy.

Francis Marion Buffenbarger, retired farmer, had been looking forward to his funeral for years. Finally, that there might be no hitch or untoward incident to mar the event he concluded to hold it under his own immediate supervision before it was too late for him to manage properly.

So he sent out invitations to hundreds of friends and relatives, and on the appointed day led the funeral cortege to the cemetery, where he dug his own grave and erected his own tombstone all ready for the last sad rites.

"Old Buff" himself made the speech of the day, advising everybody to be good and ever ready for the summons, and counseling especially against running the risk of sudden death. "Beware of automobiles and every other invention of the devil," he warned his auditors.

Then the "rites" being over, "Old Buff" passed out a wagon-load of pies and other edibles, gave all the children candy, each of the little girls a handkerchief and each of the men a cigar. Finally he invited everybody to come to his real funeral, warning them, however, that all the doings but the actual burial were already over, and that it would be a simple affair "with no undertaker around to make folks feel bad."

It seems that the Buffenbargers have ever taken delight in preparation for ringing down the curtain of life. "Old Buff" says that his grandfather kept his coffin in the house for years before he died, and had his grave clothes handy all the time.

"Old Buff" himself had a coffin ordered from a South Charleston undertaker, but it will remain in the undertaker's warerooms till it is needed.

Several years ago Mrs. Buffenbarger left "Old Buff" and ran away with  the hired man. That broke the old man's heart. He left his farm near South Charleston and came to live with friends near Grape Grove. The folks take good care of him and when the time comes for the final episode of the installment obsequies the funeral procession will not be one rig the less because all the speech-making and funeral baked meats and such are already consumed.

In an ironic touch, considering "Old Buff's" warnings against automobiles and the like, he was killed in a streetcar accident two years later. He was, of course, buried in the grave he himself had prepared.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why Billy Hansbrough Failed to Rest in Peace

On May 4, 1905, the "Louisville Courier-Journal" carried a moving obituary notice for an eight-year-old named Billy Hansbrough. It was placed by the two people closest to him, William and Ada Hansbrough. The opening lines read, "Two hearts are grief-stricken, a once happy home is lonely and desolate, for death in its terrible mission entered the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hansbrough Saturday, April 22, at 4:30 o'clock, and took their little ray of sunshine from them."

The column (which included a handsome portrait of the deceased,) paid 124 lines of tribute to the "brown-eyed, sweet-faced" Billy, adding, "The suddenness of Billy's death has left desolation in its path." Billy was "their companion wherever they went, their comfort in sorrow, their little protector in the lonely hours of the night, and as he grew deeper in their lives and hearts, their love for him became dearer."

"Their little child and sunbeam" first showed signs of illness on April 13, when he refused to eat. William and Ada had sat up all night with him, keeping "warm flannels to his little cold body...When morning came he seemed better, and took his usual little walk...and then got up in his chair at the table." However, he still had no appetite. Billy was so perturbed, he ran away from home for three days. William and Ada "made every effort in human power" to find him. Finally, he returned, "so changed from their little bright-eyed darling they could hardly recognize him."

The notice went on to say, "After a loving greeting...he went through all the rooms of his happy home, where his toys and playthings were, then got up on his little bed, and they gave him his rag doll; he was so happy to be home again."

Billy's physician was summoned at once, but nothing could be done. "Neither love, medicine, nor prayers could save that precious life." Finally, after "a pitiful little moan," he "passed away for ever."

The mourning couple held a wake, attended by all the deceased's many friends and loved ones. Then, an undertaker was called in to embalm the little body. A beautiful and expensive casket was ordered. With "trembling hands," the Hansbroughs placed Billy inside the coffin, with "the little doll he loved so well by his side."

The Hansbroughs described the funeral of their beloved in Cave Hill Cemetery. "While a little bird in a tree above them was singing they laid their darling, their Billy, to rest in his little grave in the family graveyard" in a space between those reserved for Ada and William. "As they turned from that little grave they knew it would be their only comfort while they lived" that they would eventually rest in peace forever with him. "I believe his death will kill me," said Mrs. Hansbrough plaintively. "Oh, my baby Billy, if I only had you back for a while."

This was no ordinary family tragedy. The Hansbrough choice of resting place for "their darling" was destined to cause a great deal of legal trouble.

Because, you see, Billy was a dog.

The cemetery's board of directors had allowed this unusual burial on the condition that "no mound or marker" be placed over the grave. However, the Hansbroughs violated this agreement by raising a mound over Billy's resting place. They also talked of putting up a monument. All this was too much for the villain in our little tale: a fellow plot-owner named Henry Hertle. Hertle--obviously not a believer in the "man's best friend" motto--seemed to take it as a personal insult that he should be asked to share cemetery space with a dog. In January 1906 he filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing the Hansbroughs and Cave Hill Cemetery to exhume Billy and bury his remains elsewhere. Hertle's suit accused the Hansbroughs of "keeping and maintaining a nuisance." Cave Hill was a cemetery intended only for the use of "members of the white race." Mr. Hertle huffed that he was "greatly humiliated in thinking that the bodies of those who were near and dear to him lie near the buried dog and in the contemplation that of the probability that when he dies, his body will also be buried beside that of a dog."

Personally, I can think of far worse company--such as, say, the likes of Henry Hertle--but never mind.

Although the lawsuit argued that Cave Hill had violated its own rules by allowing the dog funeral, the defense made the point that the cemetery's charter said nothing specifically forbidding dogs to be buried there. In any case, how does one prove that a decently--and expensively--buried fox terrier constitutes a "nuisance?"

The two sides argued the matter in court for over a year. Finally, in the spring of 1907, the court ruled that Billy should be allowed to continue resting in peace. The judge ruled that plot owners should not be allowed to pick and choose who should be buried in cemeteries. Otherwise, it would prevent the burial of anyone who might be personally objectionable to any other individual. "The injury done here is to the living plaintiff, who expects to be buried in his lot at some future time. It consists in his distress of mind in contemplating his daughter's present burial and his own prospective interment in a lot adjoining that in which Billy lies buried. If this be an injury to person or property, it is too incapable of being measured to invoke action by the court. If the claim of right here asserted be permitted to control it would prevent the burial of any one -- a murderer or a suicide, for instance -- whose grave might be objectionable to neighboring lot owners.

"That matter is in control of the cemetery company. An unburied dog, either alive or dead, may be a nuisance per se, but a dead dog, well buried, as in this case, is not a nuisance per se, and can not become one." In short, if Billy's grave was all right with the cemetery company, it was all right with the judge.

Well, it wasn't all right with Henry Hertle. He filed an appeal. In December 1907, the state court of appeals agreed with his anti-canine spirit and overruled the circuit court's decision. One of the judges wrote, "If the body of a dog may find sepulcher on the lot of its owner in Cave Hill Cemetery, why might not the owner of a horse, or bull, or donkey, also bury his favorite on his therein, if his fancy should take this freakish direction? Where would or could the line be drawn if not at the body of a dog?" The tribunal ordered that Billy must be buried elsewhere.

Unfortunately, I do not know what happened after this. I presume the exhumation was carried out, but history is silent on Billy's ultimate resting place. According to Findagrave.com, Mr. and Mrs. Hansbrough are both interred in Cave Hill.

I'd like to think William or Ada managed to sneak Billy in with them.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Our New Cat Overlords.

Watch out for that Viper Wine!

Watch out for those one-legged beggars!

Watch out for those patted beds!

Watch out for those shark coffins!

Gloucester is really booming!

That time the French invaded Spain.

The ghost of a drunkard's wife gets her revenge.

The lost bells of Britain.

The cats of the New York Sun.

The Burning Buschs.  (If Chris' editor won't use that title, I will.)

Atlantis and dreams of great cleansing.

An "exceedingly beautiful" serial poisoner.

The gallant Madame du Frenoy.

The further adventures of a madcap 18th century doctor.

The life and times of a 19th century abortionist.

A witchy surgeon's wife.

Looking for mermaids.

Photography on the Orient Express, 1950.

Long but fascinating story:  a cold case murder with a number of odd twists.

Explaining the witch hunters.

Building the Universe in a Scottish garden.

The Princess and the Hyde Park Naked Guards.  Why, yes, of course this story is from the Georgian era.

Behold the rudest name in medieval history.

Why Victorians thought the eyes of murder victims "photographed" their killers.

Napoleon and Wellington: Who wrote better love letters?

A whisky-loving mare.  [Note:  Many horses are still given beer as a general tonic.  Not sure if they're getting shots of Jim Beam, though.]

Murder in the East India Company.

A very unlucky WWI deserter.

The story of the "Titanic Twins."

Preserving what we have left of Palmyra.

How to properly hunt ghosts.

Is Gram Parsons still doing encores?

An interesting Indian labyrinth.

What it was like to be a prisoner in Georgian England.

Excerpts from an interesting interview with Margaret Murray.

They now believe Mars has ice.

The unlucky Sir John Soane.

A couple of delightful mermaid cons.

Making sure soldiers got their chocolate.

A famous occult grimoire.

And, finally, this week's dose of Russian Weird.

And...that's a wrap! See you next week, when I'll be looking at an unusually contentious burial. In the meantime, as this is the last Link Dump of Summer 2015, (*Sigh*) here's an appropriate piece by Vivaldi:

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This story starts off with a guy named "Nam Sarcy" and just gets weirder from there. The "Taranaki [New Zealand] Herald," December 23, 1899:

A Texas rancher named Nam Sarcy was a famous bear hunter, and had scoured the woods in the neighbourhood of his home in Antelope Canyon, in Edwards County, until he knew every foot of them and every bird and beast within their confines.

Sarcy was an intelligent but uneducated man, in good circumstances, devoted to his family, and respected by his neighbours.

One day Sarcy disappeared from his home. He had often been away on hunting trips, and his family were not uneasy until his absence had run from days into weeks; then his friends and neighbours scattered through the mountains or formed little searching parties, and took the trail.

Sarcy had never exhibited mental peculiarities to warrant suspicion that he was not of sound mind; and it was supposed that he had met with an accident.

It had been his habit when at home to keep a pet bear. He was fond of bears, and nearly always had one about the ranch. His bears he raised from cubs captured in the mountains. Nothing seemed to give him so much pleasure as playing with his pet. He was a powerful man, and would amuse himself for hours wrestling with his bear, throwing it to the ground or tiring it in a scuffle.

He would often "play bear" for his children. He would go about the house on all fours, like a bear, growling and snapping at the children, who would scamper away screaming with delight at the play.

Sarcy had been gone from home some months, and his wife and friends had given him up. It was the general opinion that he had been killed in a fight with a bear or had met with an accident.

One day last August a hunter going through the woods not more than two miles from Sarcy's house found the rifle of the missing man lying on the ground under a large pine tree; not far away was the carcase of a large bear, which had been skinned. The hide was gone. This was thought to be a clue to the presence of Sarcy, but a search failed to bring any trace of him.

A few days after the discover of the gun, the community were thrown into wild excitement by finding the body of a little Mexican girl in a berry patch. She had been killed and the body partially devoured by a large bear, whose tracks were plain to old hunters. The trail was cold, however, and the bear could not be followed.

It is not a bear region in the vicinity of Antelope Canyon, but signs of them became frequent. Some children fishing in a mountain stream were chased by a bear. His big tracks were found, and the ranch men hunted him, but without avail. Bruin was as cunning as he was audacious. The hunters often saw his tracks by the streams, but not one of them caught a glimpse of him.

It was Sarcy's wife or widow--she did not know which--who was the first to meet the bear, who had become to the mountaineers a mysterious, uncanny beast.

One evening she was going to the spring for water. At a turn in the path she came face to face with the bear. She knew it would be fatal to run, for the bear would spring upon her. So she stepped slowly backward, the bear following as slowly. Her foot caught in a root, and she fell and rolled over and over, screaming for aid. The bear sprang for her, and began gently nosing her. Suddenly it turned, and galloped off into the woods.

When Mrs. Sarcy told her story there was much wonderment. There followed fast many strange adventures in all of which the bear took part.

One day a number of children were playing about the schoolhouse, when the big bear appeared and tried to join in their play. The children ran screaming to the schoolhouse for protection. The bear followed them into the house, and danced up and down the aisles. This would have been amusing had it been a tame bear, but here was the mysterious bear that no hunter could follow, and no hunter had seen.

The beast danced toward the teacher, who was terrified. It held out its paws as if in invitation to a waltz, and the teacher made a flying leap through the window. The bear growled in its disappointment, and the children fled through windows and doors and took short cuts for home.

This story aroused the hunters, and they organised a big chase, but no one around could find the bear, and there was not a hound in the country that could long keep its trail.

One morning Mrs. Sarcy found bear tracks in her dooryard. The evening before, and for several evenings the old deer-hound that had accompanied Sarcy on his hunting trips set up a furious barking.

One evening Mrs. Sarcy went out to where the old dog was playing with some large animal whose outlines she could only dimly make out. The animal stood near the gate, and the dog rushed upon it, frolicked around, barking joyfully.

Speaking of this afterwards, Mrs. Sarcy said: "I am not sure what the animal was, but I believe it was a bear."

The people began to think the woods haunted: the frontier preacher called a meeting to talk the matter over. While the meeting was going on and the preacher was praying, the mysterious animal walked in at the back door, slapped the preacher over, and, standing on his hind legs, ambled down the aisle, snapping at the flying worshippers, who had left their guns at home.

That night the valley was aroused and talking of the terror, the devil, the demon bear.

Mrs. Sarcy was aroused that night by a noise in the room in which the children slept, which adjoined her own. She arose from her bed and stepped to the door. To her horror she saw a great black bear standing beside the bed in which her children slept.

She stepped swiftly into her own room, and caught up her husband's rifle. She knew how to shoot. She raised the rifle to her shoulder, and pulled the trigger.

"Sallie, don't shoot any more; you have killed me!"

It was Sarcy, her husband, and he had been fatally hit. She was at his side at once, screaming in agony.

Sarcy lived until the next day, and before he died he told a marvellous story of his mental suffering.

"For a long time before the mania seized me," said the dying man, "I had been thinking I was a bear."

This delusion grew on the man until he could find no relief except by going into the woods and acting like a bear for several hours. After a jaunt of this kind he would return home quiet. When he found he could no longer control himself he left his home, went into the woods and killed a bear, and arrayed himself in the animal's skin. In this way he hoped to cure himself of his malady.

In his lucid moments he greatly desired to see his wife and children. He recalled seeing his wife at the spring--as a dream. He could not remember having chased the children, nor did he know anything of the death of the Mexican girl.

He often watched his own children at play from a safe retreat near his home. He had lived on berries and roots, and he remembered that he had often enjoyed eating raw meat.

The moral of this story is: Whenever you have the urge to reinvent yourself as a bear, keep it as a hobby. Don't try to turn professional.

[Note: Thanks to Twitter's @Litrvixen for bringing this clipping to my attention. I seem to be crowdsourcing the blog these days, which can only be an improvement.]

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Weird, Wandering Wanderwells

If Aloha Wanderwell hadn't existed, she would have had to make herself up.

So that's exactly what she did.

In Winnipeg, Canada, Aloha was born on October 13, 1906 with the name "Idris Galcia Hall," and, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, she almost deserved it. Circumstance led her to acquire an early taste for world travel. In the beginning of World War I, her father, a wealthy rancher named Herbert Hall, joined the army, becoming a lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry. The entire Hall family shared his travels, spending the war behind Allied lines, in England, Belgium, and France. Unfortunately, in 1917 Herbert was killed in action. His widow sent their children to boarding schools in Belgium and France, an experience that evidently only whetted young Idris' longing to escape. She soon fled her school to seek adventure in Paris.

She found that chance when she was only 16, thanks to a Pole named Valerian Johannes Piecynski. Piecynski was a colorful character, a sailor and world traveler who had been briefly imprisoned by the Americans on suspicion of being a German spy. (He also had a penchant for illegally wearing military uniforms.) Changing his name to the considerably snappier "Walter Wanderwell," he continued his somewhat mysterious life as international man-about-town, forming a pacifist organization known as the Work Around the World Educational Club For International Peace (WAWEC.) This group--whose activities remain somewhat murky--appeared to accomplish little except catching the ever-watchful eye of J. Edgar Hoover, who feared Wanderwell was building his own subversive private army. (However, it has been plausibly alleged that WAWEC was nothing but a con aimed at luring gullible would-be "fighters for peace" into handing over the $200 "membership fee.") Wanderwell does not seem to have ever held a normal job, and had no private income of his own, but he appeared to make a decent living escorting the wealthy to remote, exotic lands.

In 1922, Wanderwell and the Ford Motor Company co-sponsored the "Million Dollar Wager," where two teams in (naturally) Ford Model Ts would compete in a race to see who could tour the most countries. Wanderwell would drive one of the cars, with his wife, Nell, leading the other. Anxious to secure as much publicity for himself as possible, he cannily knew that one of the best ways to get it was to have an attractive, equally flamboyant young woman accompanying him on the expedition. He placed ads in the Paris newspapers announcing: "Brains, Beauty, & Breeches--World Tour Offer For Lucky Young Woman!" For restless young Idris, it was the chance of a lifetime. When she presented herself in front of "Captain" Wanderwell, the pretty, six-foot-tall, ready-for-anything girl immediately secured herself a place as his sidekick. He rechristened this blonde Amazon with the more euphonious name of "Aloha."

The pair set off on what was the early 20th century equivalent of a reality TV show. They filmed themselves on their travels, showing the reels at their periodic speaking engagements. Walter and Aloha drove their Model T through Africa, the Middle East, Asia. Aloha became famous--with only some hyperbole--as "The World's Most Traveled Girl." In Calcutta, they made headlines with a well-publicized meet-up with pilots who were in the middle of the first aerial circumnavigation of the globe.

With all the publicity Wanderwell was gaining, he did lose one thing--his wife. Somewhere along his busy route, he took enough time to file for divorce. ("Too many women caused our marriage to go on the rocks," Nell Wanderwell later shrugged.)

Walter and Aloha came to America in January 1925. They married in Los Angeles several months later. This was more a marriage of convenience than the fulfillment of true love. The FBI--still eying Wanderwell with disfavor for his wartime activities--was threatening to arrest him under the Mann Act. (This notorious law, which made it a criminal offense to transport women across state lines for "immoral purposes," was a handy tool for authorities to use against anyone who rubbed them the wrong way.)

In the next two years, the Wanderwells had two children, Valerie and Nile. The pair lived up to their adopted surname, continuing their ramblings across the globe, eventually reaching 43 different countries. According to one account, along the way, Aloha briefly disguised herself as a man and fought in the French Foreign Legion. It is a story that probably belongs in the "too good to check" file. However, international journalist Rachel Crowdy gave an eyewitness account of a memorable sight: the tall, flowing-haired Aloha, dressed as a cowgirl, riding through the streets of Geneva on top of an armored car, waving to the amazed crowd as though she were visiting royalty. In China, they were captured by bandits. They only secured their release when Aloha agreed to teach them how to use machine guns. Walter was not nearly as popular, at least with the authorities of every country they visited. He was widely--and who knows how accurately--suspected of being a communist agent. His travels were believed to be merely a cover for his subversive activities. Whatever the truth to these charges may have been, (he was likely a mere grifter rather than an international spy,) Walter was unquestionably an open and habitual womanizer. This probably did little to endear him to his proud, strong-willed wife.

In 1929, the Wanderwells returned to America and bought a home in Miami, Florida. They turned their self-made newsreels into a feature film, "Car and Camera Around the World." In the following year, they were hitting the road again. They traveled to Brazil, ostensibly searching for the lost explorer Percy Fawcett, but in reality, they were hunting for their favorite quarry: publicity. At one point, their plane crashed in uncharted jungle along the Amazon. Aloha took shelter with an indigenous tribe for several months while Walter hiked back to civilization to get replacement parts for the plane. Their expedition--or, rather, extended photo-op--became another film, "Flight to the Stone Age Bororos."

It was after this adventure that the Wanderwell story shifted from adventure caper to Agatha Christie murder mystery. Late in 1932, they bought a rickety, 20-year-old yacht, "Carma," with the intention of making yet another film out of a trip to the South Seas. Sixteen excitement-seekers paid $200 each to become "crew members." (Never mind that none of them knew the first thing about sailing.) Typically for Walter, most of the "crew" were pretty young women. Authorities said publicly that the ship was unseaworthy, but felt unable to do anything to stop the expedition. Aside from that, plans for the voyage appeared to progress smoothly. The only odd incident was the mysterious disappearance of Walter's gun. Although the entire yacht was carefully searched, it was never seen again.

The "Carma" never did reach the South Seas, for the simple reason that on December 5, 1932, while still in the harbor at Long Beach, California, Walter Wanderwell was shot to death on board his newly-purchased ship.

On that fatal night, Aloha was in Los Angeles, making efforts to sell the rights to their proposed South Seas film. Most of the crew was on shore leave. Four others remained on the "Carma." They spent the evening playing cards in the mess hall. Walter was about ten feet away from them, alone in the cabin he shared with his wife. The two Wanderwell children--who were only 5 and 6 years old--slept in a nearby room.

While the quartet in the mess hall eagerly chatted about their upcoming adventure, they suddenly saw the face of an unfamiliar man in one of the open portholes. He was wearing a grey coat. His face was largely shaded by the coat's collar and a cap drawn low over his eyes.

"Where's the skipper's cabin?" he asked. They told him where it could be found. A minute or so later, they heard Walter greet the stranger with a "Hello!" They later said he sounded surprised, but not alarmed. Several minutes later, the sound of a gunshot ran through the ship.

By the time the crew reached Wanderwell's cabin, the visitor had disappeared. And Wanderwell himself was dead. He had been shot in the back at very close range. The murder weapon was never found. No one could ever explain how the assassin managed to vanish in the mere seconds before the crew rushed to the cabin.  Adding to the mystery was the fact that no one in the crowded harbor saw any stranger board or leave the yacht.

This should have been a relatively easy case to solve. Given that it was a shipboard killing, logic suggests that only a handful of people knew Walter's whereabouts that night. The others aboard the "Carma" that night were questioned carefully--a police captain told the press that there had been "some dissension"--among the passengers--but none of them had any known motive for the murder. The police soon cleared them from suspicion. (While the investigation continued, the crew members remained on the "Carma," happily charging lookyloos 10 cents a head to tour the ship.)

Four of the "Carma" crew, which included Aloha's sister Margaret Hall.

Walter's playboy ways arguably gave his wife a motive for murder, but her alibi proved rock-solid. Aloha did nothing to help matters by declaring that she could think of "a thousand men" who wanted her husband dead. (The police chief, after doing some investigating into Wanderwell's background, had to agree that she was not exaggerating.)

William James Guy, a 24-year-old Welsh soldier of fortune who had worked on one of Wanderwell's previous expeditions, was known to have been on very bad terms with Walter. (As a result of his experience working for Wanderwell, Guy had concluded the man was a crook and warned others against having anything to do with him.) After several crew members identified Guy as the man in the grey coat, he was put on trial for the killing. (When she was put on the witness stand, Aloha livened up the legal proceedings when she dramatically collapsed in a faint.)  Guy insisted his innocence, although he freely admitted that "I would not have minded killing him." Fortunately for the defendant, he was able to produce an alibi for the time of the murder--he was 30 miles away, having dinner with friends.  (One wonders, incidentally, why he didn't present this alibi before being put on trial.)  The crew members who had previously identified Guy as the "man in grey" were considerably less certain under oath.  Lacking any real evidence against him, Guy's acquittal became virtually inevitable. (He was, however, subsequently deported.)  Guy continued his career as a mercenary until he suffered a fatal plane crash in 1941.

William James Guy at the time of his arrest.

Walter's murder was never solved, probably at least partly due to the fact that no one seemed particularly anxious to seek justice on his behalf. Was he killed by one of his numerous personal enemies? A cuckolded husband or boyfriend of one of his mistresses? Did Aloha hire a hit man? Did his death have anything to do with his extremely shady enterprise, WAWEC?

Were the police too hasty in exonerating the four crew members who were on board the "Carma" the night of the murder?  Certainly, their story about the mysteriously appearing and disappearing "man in grey" sounded implausible.  Could they have been part of a real-life "Murder on the Orient Express" plot against the remarkably unpopular Wanderwell--perhaps with the connivance of the conveniently absent wife and/or William Guy?  (It is of some interest that, although it was Aloha who first suggested to police that Guy might be the murderer, she and the young Welshman were said to be "too friendly.")

The relatively few crime historians who have examined the case all seem unwilling to even make an educated guess about who shot Walter Wanderwell.

Walter's mysterious demise did absolutely nothing to cramp Aloha's style. She learned to fly a seaplane, which she used to explore uncharted areas of the Amazon. About a year after her husband's murder, she remarried, to another adventurer named Walter Baker. The couple made several more films of their world travels: "To See the World by Car," "India Now," and "Explorers of the Purple Sage." She went on several well-received lecture tours, and wrote an autobiography, "Call to Adventure!"

The peripatetic pair eventually finally settled down in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Aloha worked in radio and print journalism. In 1947, the Bakers moved to Newport Beach, California, where she eventually died in 1996 at the age of 89. As had been the case with her first husband, Aloha was buried at sea.

It is remarkable that Hollywood has never made a movie out of this woman's dynamic, strange, and slightly sinister life.

But then, who would believe the story if they did?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the Worldwide Federation of Cats Who Are Laughing At Us.

What the hell is this ancient rock art?  Now we...well, sort of know.

What the hell happened in Warminster in 1965?

What the hell happened in Augsburg in 1591?

Who the hell was King Arthur?

Watch out for the Mandela Effect!

Watch out for that anarchist soup!

Watch out for the chocolate of Chiapas!

Watch out for those vindictive vicars!

Watch out for those paranormal peacocks!

Are you a witch?  Then watch out for those broomsticks!

How a 14th century kidnapping/rape helped change the course of British history.

Squonks: the saddest cryptids.

How to tell your witches from your sorcerers.

A roundup of British crime in 1843.

Andrew Jackson and the Bell Witch.

The life of a Regency nursemaid.

The tomb of a Russian princess spawned many strange legends.

Witchcraft accusations in modern France.

Pseudocriticism of pseudosciences.

Good luck with that one, guys.

Discovering the ancient cave paintings of Petra.

The latest in the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" controversy.

Of literacy and leapfrog.

Hannah Snell vs. the press gang.

The ghost map of Gainesville.

Weird bosses.

Upstaging Stonehenge.

The man who poisoned a president's grandfather.

Archaeologists vs. Ancient Aliens.

George V's parrot.

An 18th century Rumpole of the Bailey.

A possible early victim of a notorious serial poisoner.

Robert Southey and his cats.

A clubhouse for deadbeat dads.

The strange case of a polio version of Typhoid Mary.

The grave of an ancient warrior princess.

Leek Milk and Carrot Beer make me very happy I didn't drink in the Georgian era.

Princess Diana and the alien big cats.  Now, there's a headline for you.

And, finally, this week in Russian Weird:

Side note: Russians are all lunatics. Even weirder than the Latvians.  Your average Russian makes Florida Man look like Calvin Coolidge.  I used to date a Russian guy. Trust me on this one. 

So, there you go for this week. See you on Monday, when I'll be looking at the very strange couple in the center of a very strange unsolved murder. In the meantime, here's a bit of Telemann:

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This medieval-sounding tale of a fatal curse put on a Kentucky doctor appeared in the "St. Louis Republic," October 11,1901:

"Within nine days that fine mare will die, the colt you value will die, your last hunting dog will disappear, and then you will die."

This was the prophecy made by an unknown mysterious woman to Doctor Alfred Lemberger, and it came true to the letter, for Doctor Lemberger fell over dead from heart failure on the evening of the ninth day.

The other conditions of the prophecy had already been fulfilled.

Now every detective on the Louisville force and every newspaper reporter is looking for the strange woman who made that prediction. Physicians say that she probably caused the man's death by the psychic effect upon him. But the question remains, Who is the woman? for only Doctor Lemberger knew and he never told her name. That section of the city was never so excited before.  Miss Kate Schuster, who was to have married the doctor the latter part of this month does not know nor does her sister Mrs. Schweitzer, who kept house for the bachelor. His brother and intimate friends can tell simply what Doctor Lemberger told them that a woman had predicted his death.

It started several weeks ago when Doctor Lemberger was called to attend a child suffering from diphtheria. The physician and family differed as to the diagnosis. He reported it as diphtheria, placarded the house, and enforced the sanitary measures that the law provides. The family objected bitterly. The baby died. One of the family visited the physician's office on Goss avenue to "wish him ill."

 According to the story of the dead man's intimate friends, Doctor Lemberger was a member of a little club that met each week at the home of some member for a social card game. Almost all of the well-known men in that section of town belonged. It was at a club meeting that the doctor first told the story of the strange prophecy. The man who heard him tell the story first repeated it.

"Boys," he began, "you can play cards on my coffin in a couple of weeks if the prophecy of a woman made today comes true."  Then he went on to tell his friends about the table what he called a good joke on himself. He told them the story, but held back the name of the woman, professing not to know it. In the intervals of the game, amid the jokes and laughter of his comrades the doctor told how the woman had entered his office and said first that she wanted to let him know that he need not hunt for that dog; that he was gone; because he would never come back. It had gotten into the street and a boy had carried it to the country. Then the woman said:

 "Be careful, for in nine days that fine mare will die, your colt, that you value, will die, and finally you will die on the ninth day--if you are not careful."

"But that mare is not mine. She belongs to my brother," said the doctor.

"That makes no difference," replied the woman. "Anything that is in your stable during the next nine days must die. You have enemies and they may kill you. The greatest danger to your life will be in the nine days after the mare dies. Don't go out alone at night. You can believe this because I predicted the death of President McKinley, but said nothing about it because I feared I might get into trouble."

The members of the club heard the doctor's story, and straightaway it became the standing jest. But one day the physician did not answer the questioner so readily. The fine mare was dead. Colic seized the mare one morning, and before Doctor Miller, the veterinary surgeon who was quickly summoned, could arrive she had died.

In a couple of days, however, the physician had apparently forgotten all about the incident. He was only reminded of it by the disappearance of his good hunting dog and the death of two of her pups the same day.

But one of the strange woman's prophesies remained now to be fulfilled. Lemberger had ceased to scoff about the fortunetellers, soothsayers, and the like.

One day he went fishing, but told the people at the house exactly what must be done in case he did not come back.  When the doctor went out at night he took a man with him. The time for the club meeting rolled around. The doctor went. He seemed in finer spirits than he had been for a week. He was even joking and laughing about the prophecy of the strange woman. They were playing "auction pitch."

"I bid one," said the man on Doctor Lemberger's left. The physician skinned his cards. The others were doing the same thing and paid little attention to him.

"I bid two," said Doctor Lemberger at last--then he fell forward on the table dead. The last prophecy of the strange woman had been fulfilled. It was the evening of the ninth day.

Other obituary notices confirm that Dr. Lemberger did die suddenly on October 9 of a massive heart attack. He was only 34 years old.

A similar story about the eerie circumstances surrounding Lemberger's death appeared in the "Louisville Courier-Journal" on the following day:

"Within nine days that fine mare will die, the colt that you value will die, your last hunting dog will disappear, and then you will die."

This was the prophecy made by an unknown, mysterious woman to Dr. Alfred C. Lemberger, and it came true to the letter, for Dr. Lemberger fell over dead from heart failure on the evening of the ninth day. The other conditions of the prophecy had already been fulfilled. Now all Germantown is asking the question: "Who is the woman that made the prophecy?" And none seems able to answer, for the prophecy was made to Dr. Lemberger in private, and only he knew the woman's name.  Miss Kate Schuster, who was to have married the doctor the latter part of this month, does not know, neither does her sister, Mrs. Schweitzer, who kept house for the bachelor. His brother and intimate friends can tell simply what Dr. Lemberger told them--that a woman had predicted his death.

It all started several weeks ago, when Dr. Lemberger was called to attend a child suffering from diphtheria. The physician and the family differed as to the diagnosis. He reported it as diphtheria, placarded the house and enforced the sanitary measure that the law provides. The family objected bitterly. The baby died. One of the family visited the physician's office on Goss avenue to "wish him ill," as the saying goes in that part of town.

Mrs. Schweitzer yesterday told the story of the visit. "She came and wished the doctor ill every way, and he was awful mad, and said he reckoned he'd get even with her some time."

"But is the mother whose child died the woman who predicted Dr. Lemberger's death?" asked the reporter.

"No, that is another one," said Mrs. Schweitzer. "I think she came first to tell the doctor where his hunting dog had gone. He had a fine dog, and it disappeared. One day a medium-sized woman came to his office. I didn't notice her. I wouldn't have thought of it but for the stories that the doctor told. He said that the woman predicted that he would never get the dog back, because it had been carried far away in the country by a boy, who picked it up on the street. He said, then, that she went on to tell him not to worry about that dog, because if he wasn't careful his mare would die and his colt and his other dog, and, finally, himself. My! the doctor was mad. He said he would like to break that woman's neck for telling him such foolishness. I don't believe in such things, but it all came true."

The reporter hunted up another friend who had been very close to Dr. Lemberger. And then, the only story of the occurrence that the doctor told his friend came to light.

Dr. Lemberger was a member of a little club that met each week at the home of some members for a social card game. Almost all of the well-known men in that section of town belong. It was at a club meeting that the doctor first told the story of the strange prophecy covering his end. One of the men who heard him tell the story first repeated it:

"Boys," he began, "you can play cards on my coffin in a couple of weeks if the prophecy of a woman made today comes true."

Then he went on to tell his friends about the table what he called the good joke on himself. He told them the story, but he held back the name of the woman, professing not to know it. In the intervals of the game, amid the jokes and laughter of his comrades, the doctor told how the woman had entered his office and said first that he need not hunt for that dog that was gone, because it would never come back. It had gotten into the street and a boy had carried it to the country. Then the woman said: "Be careful, for within nine days that fine mare will die, your colt that you value will die, and finally you will die on the ninth day--if you are not careful."

"But that mare is not mine. She belongs to my brother," said the doctor.

"That makes no difference," replied the woman. "Anything that is in your stable during the next nine days must die. You have enemies, and they may kill you.  The greatest danger to your life will be nine days after the mare dies. Don't go out alone at night. You can believe this, because I predicted the death of President McKinley, but said nothing about it because I feared I might get into trouble."

The members of the club heard the doctor's story and straightaway it became the standing jest.  For the next few days, whenever any member of the little club saw Dr. Lemberger, the greeting would be exchanged: "Well, Doc, ain't dead yet, are you?"  And the doctor would reply with some joke at the expense of fortune tellers, witches, soothsayers, and the like.

But one day the physician's joke did not answer the questioner so readily. The reason was plain. The time for the counting of the nine days had arrived. The fine mare was dead.  Colic seized the mare one morning, and before Dr. Miller, the veterinary surgeon, who was quickly summoned, could arrive, she had died.

In a couple of days, however, the physician had apparently forgotten all about the incident. Only he conducted a very careful examination of the stable, and ordered the negro boy, John, who attended to the horses, and who slept in a room over the stable, to move into the main house.

The club meeting night was the day after the mare died, and the members cast all sorts of jokes at their friend, asking him if he was not sorry that he had only one week to live, and similar pleasantries, which he apparently enjoyed as much as the jokers.

About three days after the death of the mare the six-months-old colt drooped and would not eat. No one told the doctor because of the prophecy, but the next morning the colt had developed an acute case of pleurisy. Dr. G.W. Knorr, from the office of Dr. Miller, was on hand quickly. He saw at once that the colt was in a very serious condition. Four men worked with the little animal for six hours and then, like the mare, it died.

Two of the strange woman's prophecies had come to pass.

"I never saw a man so much broken up over the death of an animal," said Dr. Knorr last night, "and certainly it was rather a strange case. I don't see how the colt got pleurisy in that stable."

The morning after the death of the colt, the last good hunting dog disappeared. Two of the pups died that same day.

But one of the strange woman's prophecies remained now to be fulfilled. Dr. Lemberger had ceased to scoff about fortunetellers, soothsayers and the like.  One day he went fishing, but told the people at his house exactly what must be done in case he did not come back. When the doctor went out at night now he took a man with him.

The time for the club meeting rolled around. The doctor went. He seemed in finer spirits than he had been for a week. He was even joking and laughing about the prophecy of the strange woman.  They were playing "auction pitch."

"I bid one," said the man on Dr. Lemberger's left.

The physician skinned his cards. The others were doing the same thing and paid little attention to him.  "I bid two," said Dr. Lemberger, at last. Then he fell forward on the table-dead.

The last prophecy of the strange woman had been fulfilled. It was the evening of the ninth day.

As a postscript, here is an even weirder tale from the "Atlanta Constitution," January 8, 1902:
Louisville, Ky., January 7.--Three Louisville young men have within the past six weeks come to violent deaths which were foretold them. The singular fatality which overhung them, the fact that their fates were predicted and that they died within so short a space of time has caused considerable comment.

The first of the three to die was Stuart Young. A few months ago there was not a gayer young man about town than he. Attractive, with a host of friends and holding the lucrative post of city treasurer, he seemed in an enviable position. But Young's pace had grown until finally he had to take the city's money to meet expenses. Then he began to gamble to catch even and ruin was complete.

It has recently been the fad in Louisville for young people to visit one of a member of those fortune telling here. During the summer Young was at a number of fortune tellers who held forth parties. The fortune teller gazed at Young's hand and then shook her head ominously.

"Your line of life is broken now," she said.

On November 27 he shot himself through the head in a freight yard within a block of his hotel just after an afternoon paper had announced his shortage.

The second to meet his doom was Austin Kent. He came of a leading wealthy family of Louisville. A few weeks ago he went to St. Louis. One evening he made one of a part at which palmistry served to pass away the time. The young lady who was reading Kent's hand said laughingly:

"Why, Austin, you should be dead now. Your life line stops at thirty and you're thirty-one."

"Well, I guess I've got a new one by now," laughed Kent.

Ten days later, while on an automobile party he sprang to escape what seemed a certain collision between the vehicle and a freight engine, and was ground to death beneath the wheels of the enging.

Will H. Goddard was the last to fill out the trio of destinies. He was a young man, well liked socially in Louisville for his attractive personality and gay spirits. Like Young he went on a fortune telling party. The seeress told him he would meet a violent death in less than twelve months. On Thursday last he was on a hunting expedition and pulled his gun toward him by the barrel, believing it empty. It was discharged and the contents passed through his heart.

But slightly removed from these cases by time, and of a similar nature, was that of Dr. Alfred Lemberger. Last August he incurred the enmity of a fortune teller of the east end who cursed him and his, and predicted that in nine days he would be dead. On the evening of the ninth day Dr. Lemberger died while sitting at a table playing cards with friends.

These may have been merely coincidences but they have given Louisville fortune tellers a grewsome reputation for fatal veracity. Fortune telling parties are no longer popular with the young folk of the city.

"Grewsome," yes, but you can't say Louisville palm-readers don't give you your money's worth.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Drunken Poet of Danville

Tell me that Thomas Johnson Jr. was the author of the first known book of poetry to be published in Kentucky--indeed, that his slim volume "The Kentucky Miscellany," may have been the first book ever published in the American West--and I will nod, smile politely, and shrug. I am not a literary scholar, I say. I have no plans to become a contestant on "Jeopardy." ("I'll take 'Dead and Unread' for $500, Alex.") What is that bit of historical trivia to me?

Go on to inform me that Johnson has gone down in history as "The Drunken Poet of Danville," and I begin to prick up my ears.

Throw in the fact that his verses were notoriously vulgar, blasphemous, and breathtakingly defamatory, and I give out a joyful yell of "Blog post!!"

Unfortunately, we have very few details about Johnson's life. Like many other great artists of the past, his work must serve as his biography. It is believed that he was born in Virginia around 1760 and that he moved to Danville some time in his early adulthood, although that is only guesswork. In the 1780s, his poems began to appear in Kentucky newspapers.

It seems that Johnson had mixed feelings about his adopted town. "On Danville" probably won't be reprinted by the city's Chamber of Commerce any time soon:
Accursed Danville, vile, detested spot
Where knaves inhabit, and where fools resort--
Thy roguish cunning, and thy deep design,
Would shame a Blackbeard or an Algernine.
O, may that fatal day be ever curst,
When by blind error led, I enter'd first.

Johnson was even less flattering about the Bluegrass State as a whole. It inspired one of his most memorable odes, "The Author's Hatred to Kentucky in General":
I hate Kentucky, curse the place,
And all her vile and miscreant race!
Who make religion's sacred tie,
A mask thro' which they cheat and lie;
Proteus could not change his shape,
Nor Jupiter commit a rape,
With half the ease those villains can
Send prayers to God and cheat their man:
I hate all Judges here of late,
And every Lawyer in the state.
Every quack that is call'd Physician,
And all blockheads in Commission--
Worse than the Baptist roaring rant,
I hate the Presbyterian cant--
Their Parsons, Elders, nay, the whole,
And wish them gone with all my soul.
Far worse than these, I yet do hate,
All those who pimp or speculate.
All rogues and villains, men in trade,
(If a distinction may be made.
Glad would I be: `twas quickly done,
For my own part I know of none).

One man of God in particular has achieved immortality thanks to Johnson's "On Parson Rice, Who Refused to Perform Divine Service Till His Arrears Were Paid."
Ye fools! I told you once or twice,
You'd hear no more from canting R—e;
He cannot settle his affairs,
Nor pay attention unto prayers,
Unless you pay up your arrears.
Oh, how in pulpit he would storm,
And fill all hell with dire alarm!
Vengeance pronounced against each vice,
And, more than all, curs'd avarice;
Preach'd money was the root of ill;
Consigned each rich man unto hell;
But since he finds you will not pay,
Both rich and poor may go that way.
'Tis no more than I expected—
The meeting-house is now neglected:
All trades are subject to this chance,
No longer pipe, no longer dance.

An executed wife-murderer named William Hudson was the theme of one of Johnson's better epigrams:
Strange things of Orpheus poets tell,
How for a wife he went to Hell;
Hudson, a wiser man no doubt,
Would go to Hell to be without.

Johnson's most famous poem commemorates the time when one of his frequent drinking bouts caused him to arrive at Erasmus Gill's tavern too late for dinner:
O Thou, who bless'd the loaves and fishes:
Look down upon these empty dishes!
By the same power those dishes fill,
Bless each of us and curse old Gill.

A Parson Douglass, who married a "young and buxom wife/By nature form'd for those delights/That brides expect on wedding nights," probably never thanked Johnson for the poet's description of his honeymoon:
The priest cries, "it will not do,
Faith, Betty, you'll not get your due;
I've tried, but cannot make it out,
Love's fierce machine has turn'd to snout.
Make you the way but fair and plain,
I'll take a nap and try again."
At length the wish'd for morning came,
The Parson tried, 'twas all the same--
"Ah! Faith and troth, 'tis worse and worse,
I'll keep thee, Betty, for a nurse;
My hapless impotence deplore,
And never will attempt it more."

One also wonders what the heroine of "On a Lady, Who Suffered a Loud Escape at Craig's Meeting," thought of the honor.
While Craig deplor'd our Savior's fate,
Close by the pulpit Celia sat.
Twas silence now, and all was calm,
When Craig began to sing a psalm;
With solemn look, devotion pours,
And all the congregation roars;
Celia, too, among the rest,
But Celia was with wind oppress'd--
So laying modesty aside,
And sweet becoming female pride,
Careless too of all decorum,
Let a rouser just before 'em;
Which soon dispell'd all devout gloom,
And sent a smile throughout the room.
Let others show their lukewarm zeal,
That cannot warm emotions feel.
The praises sure are far above,
Which issue near the fount of love.
It sings the sure approach of death
But sings the tune with stinking breath.

This is how an acquaintance of Johnson's named Captain Hughes has gone down in history:
A dingy hat compound of wool,
Closely confin'd his empty skull--
Beneath, short hair, in Baptist dock;
With vermin strung on every lock,
His little eyes both sore and red,
Were sunk an inch within his head;
O'er which, a pair of eye-brows rose,
Shading the wart upon his nose.

When a Danville lawyer named Michie died, Johnson wrote an ode describing him as "the ugliest man God did made," and that "He'll plead in Hell without a fee." Even more stirring was Johnson's eulogy for William Gill:
Here lies the corpse of Billy Gill,
Whom cruel Crow in rage did kill,
Beneath this stone he safely lies,
No orphans mourn, no widow cries;
His happy children, happy wife,
Freed from oppression, freed from strife;
Join in the shout, proclaim the joy,
He's gone who did our peace destroy.

On one occasion, a Danville man who raced horses fled town leaving a pile of unpaid debts. Johnson observed the event with:
John run so long and run so fast,
No wonder he run out at last;
He run in debt, and then to pay,
He distanc'd all, and run away.

Johnson's softer side is shown in his eulogy for a dog:
Here lies the corpse of little Cue,
Whose heart was honest, good and true.
Why not preserve her memory then,
Who never yet, like faithless men,
Concealed in smiles a mortal spite,
Nor fawned on them she meant to bite?

The following poem addressed to his "Brother Soldiers," indicates that Johnson served in the Revolutionary War:
Our country gave us great applause,
And own'd our valour gain'd the cause.
To praise, false show of profit lack;
They grant us lands then take them back.
What could brave soldiers wish for more:
We now are independent sure!
Our cash and chattels being gone,
We've nothing to depend upon.

Johnson was capable of tender romantic interludes, as shown in some lines addressed to a Polly Armstead, who played the frontier Laura to this Kentucky Petrarch:
The lilies pleasing to the sight,
May boast indeed their virgin white;
But Polly's breasts doth lovelier dawn,
Beneath their envious veil of lawn."

Some more suitable-for-mixed-company verses read:
To sing of Polly, lovely maid,
Requires no fabled muse's aid;
Her charms can inspiration give,
And make her poets numbers live.
Venus, thy throne of beauty yield;
Nor love dispute with her the field;
Thou ne'er had won the golden prize,
Had Paris viewed my Polly's eyes.
In vain the Goddess would compare,
With her for feature, shape and air;
In Pallas' self, alas! we find
But a weak emblem of her mind.
Observe the diamond's lucid blaze,
Darting forth its sparkling rays;
These shining charms could never vie
With charming Polly's brighter eye.
The crow who mounts on pinion high,
And seems to pierce the azure sky,
His sable plume, however rare,
Is white, compared with Polly's hair.

Unfortunately, Johnson's affections were not returned. In another poem, he refers to Armstead as the "dear tho' fatal cause of all my pain." One of his poems serves as a farewell to this lost love:
But kind heaven forbid that she should know
Pains like mine, or feel such scenes of woe;
Whate'er my fate may be, may bliss be thine,
And still be guarded by the powers Divine.

Johnson appears to have remained a childless bachelor.

Johnson's autobiographical poems have a genuine ring of melancholy, even self-disgust:
Love's the pain that I endure,
The sole disease you cannot cure;
I love, but am not lov'd again,
O curse of curses, cruel pain!
'Tis this deprives my soul of rest,
And fills with care my troubled breast.
To drive the fair one from my soul
I fly for refuge to the bowl.
O Whiskey dear, thy aid impart,
And cease my dying, bleeding heart.
'Tis done, thy fumes are in my brain,
And quite absorb all sense of pain;
But soon is quenched the pleasing flame,
And Pain and Grief their empire claim--
My spirits soon begin to sink,
I rise to take the other drink,
To shun the pangs of Grief and Pain,
And get completely drunk again.

He once wrote his own pessimistic epitaph:
Underneath this marble tomb,
In endless shades lies drunken Tom;
Here safely moor'd, dead as a log,
Who got his death by drinking grog.
By whiskey grog he lost his breath,
Who would not die so sweet a death.

There must have been something inherently lovable about Johnson. It is the only way to explain why his more insulting verses failed to get him killed. He was hardly immune to criticism, however. One of his victims attempted to give the Drunken Poet a dose of his own medicine by composing some unflattering lines:

Hail Danville! hail! where Johnson shines,
The hero of his blackguard rhymes;
Whose limber pen and polite brains,
Turns epic into dog'rel strains;
Who has ne'er plead true virtue's cause,
Where merit never met applause;
Each noble act by him consign'd,
To low burlesque and dirty rhymes;
Whose genius in the jingling skill
If chiefly drawn from whiskey stills.
If e'er a lady comes to town,
Johnson's the first to run her down.
Calls Presbyterians common evils,
And sends all Baptists to the Devil.
Church prayer-books only fit for slaves,
And Methodists all fools and knaves.
From man the Polecat sure must think,
Himself defended by his stink.

Johnson was so delighted by the tribute that he included it in the "Miscellany." He remained a famously controversial figure for some years. As late as 1834, an outraged reader wrote to the "Lexington Intelligencer" sputtering about how his "decency" had never been "more outraged" than when he encountered some of Johnson's "low doggerel." "Save us from the blackguardism, for the world is sufficiently demoralized."

Johnson would undoubtedly have been flattered by that characterization, as well.

The Drunken Poet of Danville died sometime around 1820. According to an early Kentucky historian, "his intemperance hurried him to a premature grave." His burial site has long been lost.

Sadly, due to the crude and unsettled nature of frontier life, few of his verses survive. What we have of his poetry comes mainly from "The Kentucky Miscellany," which first appeared in 1789. Although it was immensely popular at the time, going through four editions, only two copies are known to be extant, both of them from the final 1821 edition. (They can be found in Louisville's Filson Historical Society and the University of Chicago.) The "Miscellany" could be called the "Tamerlane and Other Poems" of off-color doggerel.

Crude though his verses may be, they are not only weirdly entertaining, but provide a portrait of the lively social history of the early frontier. It can only be hoped that one of the above institutions will digitize their copy of the "Miscellany," thus enabling internet users to discover the work of this forgotten figure in American literature.