"...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, September 26, 2016

The Mummy of Manchester

For generations, mummies have been a source of morbid fascination. They are a staple of museum displays, where crowds eagerly gaze at these eerily well-preserved bodies, revering them as tangible links to the remote past. Usually when we think of human mummies, we think of ancient Egypt. 18th century English ladies do not often come to mind.

Today's post is out to remedy this omission.

Our story opens at Birchen Bower Farm, a pleasant rural home near the Lancashire village of Hollinwood. Its residents were John Beswick and his half-sister Hannah. John, by virtue of both inheritance and hard work, was a wealthy man. However, while still a young adult, his health began to fail so badly that he was forced to give up all labor and retire to the quiet of Birchen Bower. He died in 1737, leaving most of his considerable estate to Hannah.

Although Hannah was now essentially alone in the world, she was an intelligent and strong-minded woman who had no trouble assuming control not only of Birchen Bower, but of the numerous nearby properties her brother had owned. Hannah never married, but her local "lady of the manor" status earned her the respectful nickname of "Madame Beswick."

Life ran on without incident until 1745 and the famed Jacobite Rebellion. Alarmed by the reports of how Bonnie Prince Charlie's Highlanders were on the march through Lancashire, Madame prudently buried what were described as "great sums" of money and other valuables around her home. On a more eccentric note, after the danger had passed, Hannah not only allowed her treasure to remain buried, she stubbornly refused to tell anyone where it was hidden.

There were no further disruptions to Hannah's quiet and prosperous existence until she reached her fifties. Her health deteriorated to the point where she could no longer manage Birchen Bower. She retired to a small cottage. Her last years were dull and rather lonely. Hannah's relatives dropped in on her occasionally, but her only regular visitor was her personal physician, Charles White. He did much to keep the rapidly failing woman comfortable, both physically and emotionally.

Charles White


Just before Hannah passed away in 1758 at the age of about 70, she promised that if her relatives brought her back to Birchen Bower to die, she would finally reveal where she had hidden her valuables. Unfortunately, she expired before they could carry out her request, leaving the mystery unsolved. Her will left Birchen Bower to a cousin on her mother's side. Upon that cousin's death, the manor was to pass to the cousin's daughter, then to Charles White. As it happened, White outlived both these women, so the estate eventually came into his possession.

Hannah's funeral was her first full leap into The Weird. That's because, to put it simply, she didn't have one. Like many people of her era, Madame had a terror of premature burial. To avoid this horrific fate, she instructed that her body be kept "above ground" long enough to ensure against any nasty surprises. The faithful Dr. White was entrusted with carrying out this unusual provision.

The doctor did so, and then some. For reasons best known to himself, he embalmed Hannah's corpse with a tar-based preparation of his own invention, then swathed the body with a large bandage, leaving only the face exposed.  This modern-day mummy rested for two years at the ancestral home of her family, Cheetwood Hall. Afterwards, White took possession of the body, proudly exhibiting it at his home in Manchester. When he retired, he settled in The Priory, his country residence in Cheshire. Hannah's mummy came with him, where it found an honored spot in White's private museum, sharing space with anatomical subjects and bizarre curios of various types. Hannah rested in the case of a grandfather clock. The clock-face had been removed, allowing the curious to get a refreshing peep of Hannah's dessicated features. According to Thomas De Quincey--whose mother had been a friend of Dr. White--Hannah had left the request that once a year, White and two other "witnesses of credit" should make a formal examination of her mummy, evidently just to reassure Hannah that she was still dead. De Quincey wrote that as a child, he himself had been allowed to view the mummy, a sight that filled him with "inexpressible awe." Alas, De Quincey added, in White's later years, he kept the "departed fair one" from the public eye.

It is not surprising that Hannah's non-burial inspired any number of more-or-less outlandish legends. Birchen Bower developed the reputation of being haunted. The neighborhood reported hearing strange, inexplicable noises around the farm, while the manor's livestock were said to behave strangely. These phenomena were particularly noticable on every seventh anniversary of Hannah's death. On a less paranormal level, it was also said that Hannah had demanded that every 21 years, her mummy was to be brought back to Birchen Bower and put on exhibition there for a week. It is not clear if this tale was anything more than gossip, but one can always hope it was based on fact.

In the late 18th century, Birchen Bower was turned into tenements for village weavers. These tenants reported that Hannah's ghost was still very much in residence. They often heard "Madame" striding imperiously through the corridors, while certain favored occupants actually saw her. One family in particular saw so much of Hannah that she practically became an accepted member of the household. When her figure--always clad in black silk--would make an appearance, they would merely shrug and announce, "The old lady comes again!"

After some time had passed, it was noticed that one tenant of Birchen Bower, known as "Joe at Tamer's," was living in surprisingly comfortable circumstances. Although weavers at that time were mostly living in desperate poverty, this man and his family appeared to have no trouble keeping themselves clad and well-fed. Rumors soon spread that "Joe" had found Hannah's long-hidden stash of valuables. Many years later, "Joe" reportedly confirmed his good fortune. The story goes that one day, he pulled up a floor in what had been Hannah's parlor, with the intention of setting up a loom. While digging a hole for the treadle, he uncovered a tin box full of gold. Unfortunately, accounts differ about whether or not "Joe's" lucky find is historical fact or just more of the folklore that grew around Hannah's strange afterlife.

Charles White died in 1813. He bequeathed Hannah to his own physician, Dr. Oilier. In 1829, Oilier donated the mummy to the museum of the Manchester Natural History Society. Hannah, laid out in a glass case, became one of the museum's most popular attractions. The mummified lady kept company with a variety of stuffed animal exhibits, including an elephant, a giraffe, and the head of "Old Billy," a horse who had lived to the age of 61. (Let us hope that Hannah's spirit never learned that while the elephant was insured for £80, her mummy was given a value of only £10.) A mid-19th century journalist noted that Hannah's body had remained "well preserved," but her face was "shrivelled and black."

The Manchester History Museum


In 1868, the museum was given to Owens College (now the University of Manchester.) Sadly, Hannah's new owners viewed the august remains of this irreproachable spinster with a deep distaste. Even the head of Old Billy earned more respect from them. The college's commissioners tried to unload the mummy on Hannah's remaining descendants, but no one was willing to take her off their hands. The interesting fact emerged that a death certificate had never been issued for Hannah, meaning that as far as British bureaucracy was concerned, "Richard Hannah liveth yet!"

The college felt it was high time for Miss Beswick to just legally die already. One hundred and ten years after Hannah Beswick breathed her last, the Home Secretary finally pronounced her deceased. Her mummy was given a quiet burial in an unmarked grave at Manchester's Harpurhey Cemetery on July 22, 1868.

"Bath Chronicle," August 20, 1868


Although a contemporary newspaper published the pious prediction that with this long-deferred funeral, Hannah's "after-death wanderings have at last ceased," this may have been underestimating Madame's restlessness. For many years afterwards, stories circulated that Hannah was now haunting The Priory, while the neighbors of Birchen Bower continued to report seeing her black-silk-clad spirit--sometimes headless!--wandering the grounds she had loved so well in life. The barn of Birchen seemed to be particularly haunted. On the twenty-first anniversary of her death, a cow was found in the barn's hay-loft. No one could explain how the poor animal could have gotten up there. On particularly dark nights, a fiery red glare was reportedly seen from inside the barn, and eerie, inexplicable noises could be heard within.

Birchen Bower is long gone, and the area where it once stood is now a busy urban scene. If an elderly lady in black silk still wanders her old property, it is likely that passers-by are too preoccupied with very modern concerns to even give her a glance.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is proud to again be sponsored by the Confederacy of Bookplate Cats!








What the hell happened to this Sherlock Holmes fanatic?

Who the hell was Lori Ruff?  Now we know!

Watch out for those Colorado banshees!

Watch out for those London vampires!

Watch out for those 19th century dentists!

Watch out for those Fairy Blasts!

Speaking of which, how fast can fairies fly, anyway?

The history of a famed WWII quote.  ("Serial killer Joe."  Love that.)

19th century child labor.

Singing with the Kibbo Kift.

The strange death of Mrs. Hopper.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  "In one ear and out the other" is not meant to be taken literally.

The latest on the Antikythera shipwreck.

Indian settlers in Australia 4,000 years ago.

Napoleon scared children.

Send music, spies, and money:  the history of electronic tollbooths.

A scientific method for finding the perfect cup of coffee.

Ancient sponsorship.

The theft of an Empress' diamond.

A (particularly) dangerous duelist.

The wreck of the Medusa.

Ever wonder what's in a Nazi time capsule?  Well, who hasn't?  Here you go.

The massacre of a family, 1976.

Edgar Allan Poe and Charleston.

Floating islands and the Loch Ness Monster.

The hard life of Victorian seamstresses.

Indian WWI soldiers write home.

The Golden Age of bodysnatching students.

Literary pigeons.

Wellington's "Dearest Georgy."

A particularly weird case of identity theft.

An 18th century versatile scoundrel.

The weirdness of ball lightning.

Yes, they do.  Next question?

Winston Churchill's early years.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the kung-fu nuns of Nepal.

Need to defend yourself against pixies?  Pack a sandwich.

Because this link collection wouldn't be complete without a discussion of Eleanor of Castile's viscera.

The execution of a drunken preacher.

Queen Victoria defends a dog's right to attend church.

Some interesting research into the powers of meditation.

The questionable past of a famed explorer.

A very helpful ghost.

Louis XVI's brother.

Is this the voice of a Neanderthal?

Another bit of evidence that ancient people were smarter than we think.

America's first popular newspaper comic.

Science is finally beginning to take ancient remedies seriously.

Painting with a mummy.

A modern-day witchcraft trial.

Sleeping with the dead in Neolithic Turkey.

The St. Bernard and the Bear Hunt.

This week in Russian Weird looks at a Soviet psychokinetic.

Oh, and they're also turning car accidents into artwork.

And just to help you get ready for the weekend:  How to drink like a Norman.

And we're done! See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at an 18th century Mummy Dearest. In the meantime, here's some Charpentier:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Newspaper Clipping of the Day







The ninth installment of the "Boston Post's" "Famous Cats of New England" series introduces us to Glory, a Greek alley cat turned Boston hymn-lover:
Probably no cat in New England lives in a more religious atmosphere than "Glory," the maltese cat that belongs to the Volunteers of America. Once Glory was just an ordinary heathen of a meat-stealing, back yard-fence-yowling slum cat.

That was before Glory's owner, a young Greek lad, "got" religion. Getting religion he offered Glory as a thanks offering to the Volunteers. That was two years ago. She was a great mouser, he assured them. Since then Glory has mended her ways.

Never a prayer meeting gathers at the Howard street headquarters that Glory is not in the midst of. Hymn singing has great charm for Glory. At most of the meetings she perches on the organ keys. The top of the drum is another favorite vantage point.

Another claim besides that of religious environment gives Glory right to be classed among the famous cats of New England. It is that she is probably the most travelled cat in these parts. For Glory was born in Greece and crossed the ocean with her one-time master. It was to the classic name of Daphne that she answered in those old days. 
December 16, 1920

Monday, September 19, 2016

A Draught of Laurel Water



The life of John Donellan reads like the plot of an 18th century novel: Protagonist uses his wits, his charm, and his capacity for shady dealing to rise from obscurity to affluence, only to take a dramatic fall that provides ample material for the moralists.

And, not incidentally, to provide crime historians with a lingering judicial enigma.

Donellan was born in Ireland in 1737. In 1753, he became a cadet in the Royal Artillery. He entered the service of the East India Company in Bengal, where he rose to the rank of Captain. He took part in the siege and eventual capture of Masulipatam from the hands of the French. The aftermath of this battle gives history its first look at Donellan's lack of scruple. He and three other officers were given the job of reuniting local merchants with their rightful property. The officers, however, opted to capitalize on their power by forcing the merchants to bribe them into turning over the goods. When their Colonel heard of this extortion, he had the four miscreants court-martialed and dismissed from the service.

When Donellan returned to England, he set out to make a place for himself in high society. His good looks and dashing manner soon won him the job of Director of Entertainments (essentially, master of ceremonies,) at the Pantheon, which was at that time the most popular gathering place for Georgian London's jet set. The mileau perfectly suited the vain, pleasure-loving, ambitious man. The Pantheon's lavish ballrooms were an excellent hunting field for an impecunious fellow in need of a rich wife.

In 1777, Donellan found his prey when a young girl named Theodosia Anna Maria Ramsay Beauchamp Boughton left Lawford Hall, her family home in Warwickshire, for a season in London. Naturally, one of the first places she visited was the Pantheon. The Boughtons were among the "old aristocracy" in their county. Their baronetcy--at that time held by Theodosia's young brother Theodosius--dated back to 1641. Theodosia was pretty, wealthy, and completely inexperienced in the ways of the world. She was the easiest of pickings for a sophisticated seducer such as Donellan. Knowing that her family would never accept him as an honorable suitor, he soon persuaded Theodosia to elope with him.

Naturally, the Boughtons were outraged, and swore to disown them both. Donellan, however, played his cards very well. Rather than try to force his new in-laws to welcome him, he gave up his playboy lifestyle and devoted himself to his bride--and her private fortune. His behavior was so irreproachable that by the following year, Theodosia's widowed mother forgave the couple and invited them to live with her at Lawford Hall.

The nominal head of the family was Theodosia's brother. However, Sir Theodosius was not prepared, either emotionally or physically, to handle his responsibilities. When he was only 15, he had contracted a serious venereal disease. His health had so deteriorated that he was forced to leave Eton. The spoiled, willful boy was capable of doing little but ailing and sulking around Lawford Hall.

Donellan again showed himself to be an expert at seizing opportunities. He, and not his brother-in-law, soon became the true master of the house. A contemporary account related how "No arrangement was made without [Donellan's] advice, nor alteration in the domestic economy admitted but with his participation. He directed every business according to his own ideas, and found obedience paid to his orders as though he had been the owner of the mansion. In short, nothing could exceed the authority which he assumed but the deference and submission with which his commands were received." We have little direct evidence about what the rightful head of the family made of this, but it seems unlikely that Sir Theodosius appreciated his brother-in-law's ascendancy. Lawford Hall could hardly have two masters forever, especially once Sir Theodosius attained his majority--an event that would take place in August 1781. Surely after that, one or other of the men would have to cede control.

As a matter of fact, by August 1780, Donellan was dropping grim hints that this would be exactly what would soon happen--and he made it clear that he would not be the one to leave. He began treating acquaintances to lurid descriptions of Sir Theodosius' illness and impending death. He confided to a local vicar that the baronet's "blood was a mass of mercury and corruption," which had left the young man sadly broken in body and mind. His brother-in-law, he sighed, was certain to die soon.

On August 29, the Boughton family's apothecary, a man named Powell, put together a "purging draught" for Sir Theodosius consisting of rhubarb, lavender, nutmeg, saffron, and other unremarkable ingredients. It was delivered to Lawford Hall later that day, where it was placed in the young baronet's bedroom. Sir Theodosius never locked his room, meaning that the contents were easily accessible to anyone in the household. The day progressed uneventfully. Sir Theodosius spent much of the day fishing, and appeared to be in reasonably good health and spirits.

At 7 a.m. the next morning, Lady Broughton came into her son's room to give him his medicine. He complained that it "smelt and tasted very nauseous." His mother agreed that the "draught" "smelt very strongly like bitter almonds," but urged him to swallow the dose anyway. Sir Theodosius obeyed.

He very soon had reason to regret his compliance. Within seconds, the youth became horribly ill. He began to go into convulsions. Within ten minutes, however, he appeared calmer, and seemed about to fall asleep. Lady Broughton, rather oddly, assumed that all now was well, and calmly left the room to finish dressing for the day. (She and Donellan were riding to a nearby spa to "take the waters.") When she returned a few moments later, she was shocked to see that her son seemed near death: his eyes were rolled upwards, his teeth were clenched, and froth was running from his mouth. She instantly ran for help.

When Donellan arrived on the scene, Lady Broughton exclaimed to him, "I have been giving my son something that was wrong, instead of what the apothecary should have sent." Donellan reacted to this news by taking up the medicine bottle and carefully washing it out with water. His mother-in-law protested, "Good God! What are you about? You should not have meddled with the bottle."

Donellan ignored her. When a maid entered the room, he coolly ordered her to take away the bottle and the basin he had used to wash it. Lady Broughton told her to "let them alone." However, the minute her back was turned, he repeated his instructions to remove the items.

Donellan later told the other servants that Sir Theodosius' death was due to "a broken blood-vessel." He cheerfully told the head gardener that "I have wanted before to be master; I have got master now, and shall be master." When Powell the apothecary arrived at the Hall, Donellan informed him that Sir Theodosius died of a chill, caught as a result of his unwise fishing expedition the day before. He said nothing about the "draught." The apothecary asked no questions, and seemed content to write off the baronet's death as just one of those unhappy accidents of fate.

Sir Theodosius' guardian, Sir William Wheeler, thought otherwise. The suddenness of the baronet's death was generating a lot of unpleasant talk in the area, and Sir William believed an investigation was called for. He wrote to Powell asking that an autopsy be performed, in order to "prevent the world from blaming any of us that had anything to do with poor Sir Theodosius." Donellan, with his usual geniality, unhesitatingly agreed.

The post-mortem was scheduled for September 4. However, the body had so decomposed in the hot summer weather that the doctors believed even attempting an autopsy would be pointless. They left without even a cursory examination of the corpse.

Afterwards, Donellan wrote to Sir William giving a decidedly misleading account of the proceedings. He strongly intimated that the autopsy had indeed been performed, "and I am happy to inform you they fully satisfied us."

The funeral was scheduled for September 6. However, Sir William, who had learned the truth about the aborted autopsy, sent two surgeons named Buckhill and Snow to do a post-mortem before the burial. When Buckhill came to the Hall, Donellan told him that they could do nothing until Snow arrived. In the interim, Buckhill left to attend a patient who lived nearby. When he returned an hour later, he found that the other doctor had already came and left. Donellan assured him that "Mr. Snow had given his orders what to do, and they were proceeding according to those orders." Buckhill shrugged and left without even seeing the body. (We do not know exactly what Snow's "orders" were, but he did not examine the corpse.) Sir Theodosius was placed in the family vault without any further ado, and, as far as Donellan was concerned, the matter was closed.

Unfortunately for him, the county coroner felt otherwise, and ordered an inquest into the baronet's mysterious death. On September 9, Sir Theodosius was exhumed, and an autopsy was finally done. Regrettably, due to the advanced decomposition of the corpse, little could be learned from it.

Donellan told the coroner's jury that Sir Theodosius kept "arsenic by the pound weight" that he used to wage battle against the rats who "swarmed remarkably" around the Hall. The baronet, he said, was frighteningly careless about how he handled the arsenic, so he doubtlessly accidentally poisoned himself. (It was later proved that the Hall had neither arsenic nor rats.)

When Lady Boughton gave her inquest testimony, a juror noticed that when she began to speak about Donellan washing the medicine bottle, "I saw the Captain catch her by the gown and give her a twitch." When they returned to the Hall, Donellan rebuked her, stating "You had no occasion to mention my washing the bottles, if they did not ask the question."

He had good reason to be upset by Lady Broughton's loose lips. After the jury heard her testimony about Donellan's curious behavior in the death chamber, they had little trouble charging him with murder. He was soon apprehended at put in jail to await his trial.



Lady Broughton's description of the fatal draught's smell led doctors to suspect that it had been doctored with laurel water. It was noted that laurel grew in abundance around the Hall, and that Donellan possessed a still. The theory outlined by the prosecuting attorney was simple: "Had [Sir Theodosius] attained to the age of twenty-one years he would have had in his own power and at his own disposal a great and opulent fortune. In the event of his dying before that time, by much the greater part of that fortune descended to his sister, who is the wife of the prison, Mr. Donellan, and he in her right would have been entitled to a life estate in this considerable fortune." In regards to this fortune, it is alleged that Donellan's attorney later related an interesting anecdote. Supposedly, this legal counsel recommended that Donellan hire a very talented, but very expensive lawyer. The defendant agreed, and told the attorney to have Mrs. Donellan provide the necessary funds. She demurred, arguing that it was unnecessary to pay such a high fee. When the Captain heard of his wife's reluctance to part with her money, he snapped, "And who got it for her?" "Then, seeing he had committed himself, he suddenly stopped."

Donellan confided to a fellow-prisoner that the real murderer of Sir Theodosius was none other than the boy's mother, who had been anxious to gain control of the family fortune before it was frittered away by her irresponsible son. "He spoke of my Lady's covetousness, how covetous she was." Donellan even wrote his wife a letter repeating the charge against Lady Broughton, advising her to leave her mother's house, "where you are likely to undergo the fate of those that have gone already by sudden means." For good measure, he hinted that Lady Broughton had poisoned her husband, Sir Edward, as well.

Donellan's trial took place on March 30, 1781. Lady Broughton and the other witnesses gave essentially the same testimony they had delivered at the inquest, laying great emphasis on Donellan's decidedly squirrely behavior with the medicine bottles. Lady Broughton added that her son and son-in-law "used to have words, to be angry with each other; they did not in general live in friendship or intimacy." Doctors gave their reasons for presuming that Sir Theodosius had been poisoned with laurel water, although they admitted that they were handicapped in their diagnosis by the inability to do a thorough post-mortem. They did not believe that the baronet had died from any recognizable natural causes.

When the time came for the defense to present their case, Donellan submitted a written statement that was notable for what it did not say. The matter of the medicine bottle was ignored entirely. His assertions that he had married his wife "with the entire approbation of her friends and guardians," that he and Sir Theodosius lived "in perfect friendship and cordiality" and that he had signed a marriage settlement renouncing any claims to his wife's money, were all demonstrably false. All in all, the defendant might have been better off simply keeping his mouth shut.

The defense's most notable witness was John Hunter, a famous and highly regarded surgeon of his day. Dr. Hunter gave his belief that Sir Theodosius had died of apoplexy. From the testimony given by the other doctors, he saw no reason to assume the baronet had been poisoned. However, under cross-examination, he was forced to admit that "If I knew the draught was poison I should say, most probably, that the symptoms arose from that." He also conceded that laurel water could produce the symptoms observed in Sir Theodosius' death. He closed by admitting that he really could not say how the baronet had died.

After deliberating for ten minutes, the jury gave a unanimous verdict of "Guilty." The judge heartily concurred with this decision, telling the prisoner that "I think it is impossible to find any, even of the meanest capacity, amongst the numerous auditory standing around you, that can doubt about your guilt."

Donellan's execution was scheduled for April 2. While awaiting his doom, the condemned man occupied himself by writing a lengthy document asserting his innocence, and repeating his charge that the real murderer was Lady Broughton. As he stood on the gallows, he told onlookers he was "a sacrifice to the malice and black devices of a mother-in-law." His last words were to calmly tell the hangman, "Pray do not let us have any bungling."

Theodosia Broughton Donellan survived her notorious spouse by nearly fifty years. She had two further marriages: to Sir Egerton Leigh, a well-known Nonconformist, and Barry O'Meara, Napoleon's surgeon-in-exile and author of the book "A Voice from St. Helena." Her three very different husbands were nicknamed, "The Pendant, the Independent, and the Dependent."

The unsatisfactory investigation into Sir Theodosius' death and the essentially circumstantial evidence against the accused have led a surprising number of authors to assert that Donellan was innocent. The famed 19th century novelist G.P.R. James even wrote a three-volume novel ("Sir Theodore Broughton") portraying Donellan as a guiltless victim of popular prejudice. Over the years, it has been theorized that perhaps, after all, Sir Theodosius died from natural causes. Or Lady Broughton really did poison her son and then frame her son-in-law for the deed. Or, perhaps, Theodosia Donellan, desiring sole possession of the family estate, was responsible for her brother's death. Or were the young baronet's mother, sister, and brother-in-law all plotting together against him,?

It is fair to say that we will never be completely certain about the exact circumstances surrounding the death of Theodosius Broughton. However, I don't believe they hanged a guiltless man.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the Confederacy of the Bookplate Cats!








Where the hell is Atlantis?  This Italian scientist thinks he knows.

Where the hell is HMS Terror?  Now we think we know.

Who the hell killed James Garfield?  This author thinks he knows, and the murderer may not have been who you think it was.

What the hell is this Neolithic stone?

What the hell was the Loomis Street Affair?

England's first Wicked Stepmother.

A murder mystery with an inconclusive ending.

The secret diary of an 18th century planter.  Read the excerpts and you'll see why it was secret.

Some etiquette tips if you're ever transported to the 18th century.

The Clock Bewitcher.

The ultimate cure for rheumatism.

The Mitford Sisters, the Kardashians for the intellectual set.

The battle over Nefertiti.

Canada's role in the Louisiana Purchase.

Dog-grooming in 19th century high society.

9,000 year old Australian homes.

A Scottish "Physic Well."

Medieval recycling.

A Brownstone for your favorite hipster cat.

The first attempt at optography.

This week's "Well, duh!" moment: It's finally dawned on scientists that dolphins have a language.

The biggest witch trial in history.

The top American folktales.

A Series of Unfortunate 1843 Events.

A doomed Rat Utopia.

That time someone wanted to drain the Mediterranean.

A look at some megalithic tombs.

Re-evaluating the Black Prince.

Some WWI dowsing.

The life of an 18th century courtesan and spy.

The world's oldest snowshoe.

Another one for the "Our Ancient Ancestors Were a Lot Smarter Than We Think" file.

A bad landlord leads to a family tragedy.

Living on the fringes of Empire.

Visions of the American flag.

Particularly strange cases of missing children.

Anyone else up for booking a room in a haunted lighthouse?

The Case of the Howling Queen.

Some French animal tales.

How to lose a 137-carat diamond.

A magistrate's extremely colorful casebook.

An 18th century Zelig.

An interesting experiment testing the power of mind over our bodies.

Poisons and love potions.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  Beware the snake poo salesmen.

Also, what not to do with pins.

A British MP puts in the ultimate overtime.

More about fortune-telling with moles.

Cows and the full moon.

The Shaman's Apprentice.

An early Northern Ireland UFO sighting?

Is there a secret message in the Sistine Chapel?

A place where a very peculiar woman thinks the world is falling apart and surrounds herself with cats because she thinks they're gods.  Despite what you're assuming, this is not a profile of Strange Company HQ.

An ill-fated Duke of Burgundy.

Why we all love black pigs.

The death of a prostrated pirate.

A case of "Second Sound."

How to raise a genius.

A French Court of Miracles.

A guide to eloping.

Bird trees and barnacle geese.

This week in Russian Weird:  This one's for anyone out there nursing a delusion that life under the Soviets was fun and games.

Except, of course, when they were trying to find the hollow earth.  That was fun and games.

And that's all for this week.  See you on Monday, when we'll look at a still-controversial 18th century murder mystery.  In the meantime, here's a song that has been covered by pretty much everyone who ever stepped up to a microphone, but this is probably my favorite version:


Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Newspaper Clipping(s) of the Day



Chris Woodyard's outstanding collection of morbid delights, "The Victorian Book of the Dead," featured the sad end of Alice Knott, murdered by her "evil-dispositioned" parrot, who had the habit of "pulling the tips off the gas burners with his strong beak and inhaling the gas until it stupefied him." While this was nothing but fun and games for the bird, one night it was death for his mistress.

This memorable tale left me wondering if this was a once-in-lifetime sort of event, or if there were other tales of people gassed to death--intentionally or not--by their pets. Just a short browse through the old newspapers left me convinced that our beloved furry and feathered friends are in league to kill us all.

Let's kick things off with the soulmate of Miss Knott's bird, Dolly the Parrot of Death. This story comes from the "La Crosse Tribune," September 25, 1947:

Jersey City, N.J.--Her pet parrot who turned on a kitchen stove gas jet was blamed today for the death of 66-year-old Mrs. Fannie Stewart.

Mrs. Stewart, a widow, was revived by police rescue squad workers but died later at the Jersey City medical center of what hospital authorities said was cerebral thrombosis.

She had told rescue workers that her parrot, Dolly, flew about her Beacon avenue home at will and had turned on the gas jets once before when it alighted on the kitchen stove. Mrs. Stewart, however, said she had discovered the escaping gas before any damage was done that first time.

Neighbors who detected gas seeping from Mrs. Stewart's home summoned the rescue squad yesterday.

Dolly's mug shot.


The "Dundee Courier," April 7, 1948:
Mr. John Blackman returned to his home in Crewys Road, Charles Hill, Cricklewood, to find his wife was missing.

He thought at first she must be shopping or with neighbours.

There was a strong smell of gas. He went upstairs. In the bathroom he found his 56-year-old wife, Susan Maria, dead.

At the Hendon inquest yesterday a gas official said the geyser safety device was faulty, and a bird had built its nest in the flue pipe.

Verdict--Accidental death from coal gas poisoning.

Sadly, there was at least one case where the tables were turned on our homicidal birds. The "Perth News," April 21, 1928:
Melbourne, Saturday.--That a mouse should cause a parrot's death seems incredible, but such a thing happened in the flat of Mr. and Mrs. P.R. Garvie, Mary-street, St. Kilda, this week.

Mrs. Garvie was accustomed to leaving the parrot's cage in the kitchen overnight to protect the bird from cats.

On Thursday night a mouse crept from its hiding place, and in its search for food climbed a gas pipe, leading to the copper. The tap on this pipe was very loose. It turned under the weight of the mouse, and the room was filled with gas. In the morning when Mrs. Garvie entered the kitchen she found her pet bird and mouse lying together dead in the bottom of the cage.

I suppose it should not be a surprise that cats excel at creating DIY gas chambers for their owners. They were, by far, the leading practitioners of this particular animal hobby. This next brush with death comes from the "Virginia Recorder," July 22, 1938:
Des Moines.—Less than 24 hours after three young women of Des Moines received a cat as a mouser, the animal brought death close to the girls by turning on a gas burner as they slept. The girls are the Misses Lavona and Evelyn Hove, sisters, and Miss Helena Adair. They occupy a basement apartment in the rooming house of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Bougher.

A few days ago the girls heard a mouse in their room. Learning of this, Miss Adair’s mother offered the cat as a solution. The three girls promptly installed the cat in the apartment and named her Tippy. It was about 1 a.m. when the girls retired. Tippy was lying curled up in a corner, apparently content. A little before 6 a.m. Bougher went to the house furnace in the basement. When he returned to his quarters a few minutes later he told Mrs. Bougher there was a strong odor of gas in the basement.

“I can smell it up here,” Mrs. Bougher replied. “Say—l wonder if it can be coming from the girls’ apartment? You know it’s right below this room.” The couple hurried to the basement, knocked on the apartment door, but received no answer. “I thought right then that they were dead,” Mrs. Bougher said. “The gas was so strong it almost knocked me down,” she said. “I yelled several times and then one of the girls answered. Mr. Bougher ran into the room and opened the windows. “We found that one of the burners on the stove was about half-way open. That’s where the gas was coming from.” The three girls were aroused and taken to the Bougher apartment. None suffered any apparent ill effect. Neither did Tippy. All three girls were certain the gas had not been on when they retired. And certainly, they said, the burner had not been half-way open for five hours. This left Tippy as the only possible suspect. “I guess it was a pretty close call,” said Miss Lavona. “After this,” added Miss Adair as she stroked the cat, “Tippy is going to have to sleep out nights.”
I found no follow-ups to this story, but I'm guessing Tippy got her body count in the end.

Same goes for this cat recorded in the "Sydney Herald," April 28, 1931:
Wellington (N.Z.) Monday. Left inside a Wellington house to catch mice, a cat jumped on the gas stove during the night, in search of some fish that had been left there, and turned on a gas jet, and as a result the occupants of the house were nearly asphyxiated. The mother and three children were overcome by fumes, and the others became violently ill. One member of the family had awakened earlier, smelt the gas, and turned off the tap, without telling the others.

"San Francisco Call," November 1, 1913:
A pet cat in the home of Edward Clarkson, Brooklyn, disconnected a rubber tube from a gas stove in the kitchen, causing the death of Mrs. Ida Clarkson from asphyxiation. Clarkson was asleep at home, as also was his wife. He was removed unconscious to the Holy Family hospital.
"Perth Times," March 25, 1934:
A pet cat is believed to have been responsible for the death of its 90-year-old owner, Mrs. Margaret Kingston, who was found in a gas-filled room at her home at York-road, Hove, England.

Mrs. Kingston loved her cat--a Persian--so much so that every night she took it to bed with her.

It is believed by the police that while she was lying asleep the cat brushed against a gas-jet, turning on the tap.

When they entered the room Mrs. Kingston was dead in bed. Her daughter Mrs. Moorhead, and the cat were lying on the floor unconscious.

Mrs. Moorhead and the cat recovered after the police had applied oxygen to both.

The "Western Press," August 13, 1931:
Mr. J. Lewis, of Frazer Street, Bedminster, Bristol, had his moustache and eyebrows singed when an explosion occurred in the gas stove at his home yesterday.

The force of the explosion broke panes in the kitchen window and damaged the ceiling.

Mrs. Frazer expressed the opinion to a reporter that the cat must have turned on the gas in the oven.

When her husband lit the gas on top of the stove, he smelt an escape, and opened the oven door, a loud bang being the result.

[Note: You know you have one heck of a slow day in Bristol when J. Lewis' singed moustache is headline news.]

A rare instance of a would-be killer cat's change of heart was reported in the "Columbia Missourian," March 15, 1929:
Cats usually come under the category of "dumb animals" but "Rags," a persian cat belonging to Mrs. N. A. Dysart, 208 South Eighth Street, has proved the exception. About three o'clock yesterday morning Mrs. Dysart was awakened by "Rags" jumping upon the bed and then racing into the hall. The cat continued this until she finally awakened her mistress enough to know that something was wrong and that the cat was trying her best to tell her.

Mrs. Dysart followed the animal out into the hall where gas fumes were so heavy that it was almost impossible to breathe. She succeeded in getting the window open and making her way into the kitchen from which the gas seemed to be coming. Groping though the dark until she located the light switch, she found that one of the gas jets was on.

"Rags" was in the habit of getting upon the stove to catch mice that were making their home there. In so doing she had accidentally turned on the gas and sensing that something was wrong sought to warn her mistress of the accident.

The "Meriden Morning Record," March 2, 1912:
Newton, Mass., March 1.--The cat in the household of Louis Andrews at Newton Upper Falls could not control its curiosity as to the shutoff on the gas range in the kitchen early today. The consequence was that four of the occupants of the house were rendered unconscious by escaping gas and were not revivied for several hours.

When the excitement was all over a searching investigation revealed that the cat, which had been asleep in the kitchen, had turned on the gas.

Mr. Andrews is in doubt whether the family pet became despondent and contemplated suicide or hit the gas cock in a playful mood. The cat suffered no ill effects from the gas.

"Playful mood," my eye. Mr. Andrews had yet to learn that a few days earlier, the cat secretly took out life insurance policies on the entire family.

I kid, I kid.

You don't have gas in your home, you say? You're immune from having your darling pet asphyxiate you in your sleep?

Ahem.

The "Yorkshire Post," July 19, 1933:
The prowling of a cat in the cellar of the house of Mr. Bower, Hillhouse Lane, Huddersfield, nearly resulted the family being gassed by ammonia fumes. Mr. Bower, who is a grocer, had a carboy of ammonia In the cellar underneath on which stood some ginger beer bottles. It is thought the cat, walking along the shelf, knocked over a ginger beer bottle on top of the carboy. The glass was broken, and ammonia fumes spread rapidly over the house while the cat made her escape.

When Mr. Bower realised what had happened, he called the fire brigade, who it found Impossible to get inside the house without the aid of masks. So far had the fumes spread that the ordinary gas mask was no use, and a special one had to secured. This was attached a box containing several different kinds of chemical crystals to counteract the effect of different gases. The mask had not previously been used against ammonia fumes by the Huddersfield brigade, but Sergeant Hutton, who went to the cellar to carry out the carboy, felt no effect from the fumes.

You dog owners must be feeling pretty smug right now. No lethal birds or treacherous cats for you. No worries!

Read on.

"Kalgoorlie Miner," October 9, 1948:
London, Oct. 8--A dog, by jumping on a gas cooker and turning on the tap, caused the death of his master, 53-year-old Ernest Herbert Gibbons, who was found gassed in a first floor bedroom of a house in the London suburb of Cricklewood.

Gibbons was in bed and evidently asleep when the dog jumped.

Here is a particularly incriminating story from the "Sunderland Echo," December 30, 1933:
A dog belonging to John Carter, of Hull, accidentally turned on a gas tap in the room where its master was sleeping.

The dog then went to another room where its play awakened the man's brother.

John Carter was found unconscious from the effects of the gas fumes.

"Gloucester Citizen," January 30, 1939:
A pet dog found unconscious on a kitchen floor is thought to have been the cause of a gas tragedy in which a man, his wife and a child lost their lives at Manchester during the week-end.

The dead people were: William Edward Webb, aged 52, a railway worker, Jane, his 51-years-old wife and Roy, aged 6, their adopted son.

Policemen who were called by neighbours to their house in Eltham-street, Levenshulme, found Mr. Webb and Roy dead in bed in the back bedroom. Mrs. Webb was in the front bedroom.

The house was full of gas which had escaped from a tap on the scullery boiler, which was turned on slightly.

The dog revived after treatment.

The only theory as to the cause of the tragedy is that the dog, which was allowed to run about the house during the night, had brushed against the tap and turned it on.

The lesson to be learned from today's post? Keep the catnip, gourmet bird seed, and caviar dog biscuits handy, my friends. Maybe we can bribe them into sparing us.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Ghosts of Antigonish



Most real-life ghost stories start suddenly, unexpectedly. Life is normal one moment, and awash in The Weird the next. A notable exception is one of Canada's most well-known hauntings, usually known as "The Fire-Spook of Caledonia Mills." This paranormal tale started with a lethal curse, which should have given everyone involved fair warning.

The site of our tale is the isolated farm of Alexander MacDonald, in the remote rural village of Caledonia Mills, Antigonish, Nova Scotia. According to legend, trouble began in 1900, when MacDonald's wife Janet got into a bitter argument with her mother, Mary Cameron. In her fury, Janet snapped, "I hope the devil in hell comes and takes you before nine o'clock tomorrow morning!"

Yes, indeed, the next morning Mrs. Cameron suddenly died. Before nine.

Anyone familiar with such tales knows that when you summon the aid of Satan, it can be very hard to get the fellow to leave. Unnerving things began to happen at the MacDonald farm. Household belongings mysteriously vanished, later reappearing in remote spots on the property. MacDonald's horses and livestock would somehow be set loose from their stalls, and nothing MacDonald did seemed able to stop it. During the night, horses and cattle switched places, with the cows in the stables and the horses in the cattle areas. The animals' tails were found elaborately braided. The poor creatures were always left terrified after these occurrences. Heavy farm equipment would be moved about, as if by invisible hands. Passers-by often noticed a weird blue light playing around the barn.

In 1910, the MacDonalds adopted a two-year-old girl named Mary Ellen. She was the daughter of a local woman who could no longer take care of her. The child rarely attended school and had no outside friends or interests. She grew up in the morbidly private world of this increasingly eerie farm.

The family's private descent into hell became very public on January 6, 1922, thanks to what became known as "The Night of 38 Fires." Mary Ellen braved walking through a fierce blizzard to seek out the neighboring farm of Leo MacGillivray. Her family, she pleaded, needed help. Fires kept breaking out at all sorts of different locations in their home, and the MacDonalds were unable to control them.

When MacGillivray and other neighbors arrived at the MacDonald's, they saw immediately that these were no ordinary house fires. MacGillivray later said that the place would suddenly become illuminated as if by a short circut on a high-tension wire. Then, bluish blazes would suddenly appear on the unlikeliest places--including soaking wet papers, rags, and wood. The wallpaper would periodically shoot out flames. As soon as the fires were extinguished, new ones would pop up to take their place. There was a strange lack of heat to the fires. No gasoline or other flammable materials were inside the house.

Perhaps the most curious occurrence was reported by two neighbors, Michael McGillivray and John Kenney. One day, as they were approaching the MacDonald home, they saw a hand grasping a piece of white cotton projecting from an upstairs window. The white cloth was waved three times, as if giving a signal, before it disappeared. Residents of the house swore that no one had been upstairs at the time.

The MacDonalds were exhausted from battling the unremitting blazes, and in a state of confused panic about what was happening to them. By January 12, the family, terrified that they might be burned alive, had no choice but to flee. They took shelter with the MacGillivrays.

Naturally, word soon spread of the peculiar events at the MacDonald farm. Harold Whidden, a reporter for the "Halifax Herald" was assigned to visit the farm. With him was a retired police chief, Peter Carroll. The men spent two nights at the farmhouse. They were spared the mystery fires, but reported hearing footsteps and other eerie noises. A...something angrily slapped them on their arms and faces.

Peter Carroll (above) and Alexander MacDonald


Whidden, increasingly convinced that the farm was plagued by paranormal forces, turned to automatic writing. He soon felt his mind "controlled by some unseen power. Every movement [of his hand] appeared to be dictated or automatic. The writing was not of my own violation."

The invisible tormentors were asked, "Who set the fires in Alexander MacDonald's house?"

"Spirits!" Whidden's hand wrote on the paper.

It was then asked, "Did you slap Harold Whidden on the arm the second night he and Mr. Carroll were in the house?"

Whidden wrote "Yes," explaining, "Because I wanted to show him that the mystery fires were caused by spirits!"

Whidden wrote for over two hours, receiving what he believed were many different messages from the "spirits." However, he never revealed their full contents, explaining that most of them "were of the utmost significance and not a few of them were of an entirely personal character." Whidden concluded, "I will...believe to the hour of my death at least, that the fires in Alexander MacDonald's house and the mysterious unfastening of his cattle were caused by spirits." Carroll agreed. He later described the MacDonalds as "straightforward, substantial and God-fearing...I firmly believe that neither the fires nor other strange occurrences about the farm were the cause of human hands."

So...what did cause them?

Walter Franklin Price, a scientist at the American Research Society of New York, believed he had the answer. He spent nearly a week at the MacDonald farm, and returned convinced that Mary Ellen was responsible for the fires. He wrote that Mary Ellen may have been in an "altered state of consciousness" and in the grip of a "discarnate intelligence" when these seemingly occult acts were committed. However, he absolved her from conscious guilt, writing that "I am emphatically of the opinion that the girl was not mentally culpable. She is mentally exceedingly young for her years and witin the past year has had singular 'dream' states, from which it was difficult to rouse her. It is very probably that she was the victim of altered states."

Dr. Price did not bother to explain why, if such was the case, Whidden and Carroll experienced weird phenomena when Mary Ellen was nowhere in sight.



An even less likely theory was offered by Edward O'Brien, of St. Francis Xavier University. O'Brien proposed that the so-called "Fire-Spook" was really due to wireless currents that ran through the area from nearby radio towers. The commotion with the livestock, he scoffed, was just Mary Ellen playing pranks on her gullible family. No one else, however, managed to take O'Brien very seriously, particularly after Guglielmo Marconi himself publicly dismissed the idea.

Poltergeist tales rarely have a happy ending, and sadly, this was no exception. Neighbors indignantly refuted Dr. Price's suggestion that Mary Ellen was in any way to blame for the chaos that had engulfed her family. They described her as a sweet, good-natured girl who loved her adopted parents and was incapable of playing such sadistic "pranks." The strange events at her home, coupled with the common tendency to place responsibility for them on her shoulders, proved to be too much for Mary Ellen. In October 1922, she was temporarily committed to an insane asylum. After her release, she eventually married, and did her best to put the horrific experiences of her youth behind her. The MacDonalds abandoned the farm for good. Some years later, it mysteriously burned down, and no one showed any inclination to rebuild on the notorious plot of ground.  To this day, there is a belief that the land where the farm stood is "cursed," and that if anyone removes any item--no matter how small and insignificant--from the site, the "Fire-Spook" will prey on their home, as well.

When asked what he thought of the events at the MacDonald farm, Harold Whidden would invariably answer, "It is beyond me. The solution of the mystery may be quite simple, but to me it is a very strange affair, and I would not offer a suggestion."

That may have to remain the final word on the matter.