"...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 18, 2017

The Haunted Mill

The haunted mill at Willington

In its day, that bit of High Strangeness known as the "Willington Ghost" was the talk of England. Hundreds of people regularly flocked to the site of its appearance in the hope of seeing the "Ghost" for themselves. However, in the decades since the event, the haunting has been largely forgotten in favor of more famous, if not necessarily more interesting, ghost tales.

It's high time to remedy that omission.

Ground Zero for this particular ghost was a steam-corn mill and adjacent home in Willington, Northumberland. In 1831, the buildings, which dated from 1800, were purchased by Joseph Procter and his wife. For three years, the family lived at the residence without incident. After that, however, life got suddenly and unaccountably weird.

The household began hearing mysterious noises. When the servants would go out to fasten the garden gate every evening, they would hear footsteps behind them. When they turned around, no one was there. Inside the house, they would regularly hear the sound of something heavy falling from the roof, hitting floor after floor until a loud thump was heard at the bottom. They would hear a loud commotion in the kitchen, as if someone was throwing things around. When they went to investigate, the residents were oddly comforted to find the room empty. It was, the Procters sighed in relief, "only the ghost."

One night, the mill's foreman, Thomas Mann, heard a water-cart creaking as if it were being dragged out of the yard. Upon investigating, he saw nothing. The cart had not been moved. On several different occasions, a number of witnesses reported seeing a woman dressed in a shroud standing outside the house. Perhaps eeriest of all, one day Mrs. Procter called to the family's nursemaid. The familiar voice answered back. The trouble was, the nurse was not in the house at the time...

In June of 1835, while the Procters were away from home, one Edward Drury and a friend, Thomas Hudson, obtained permission to spend the night alone in the now-notorious "haunted house." What happened next is best related in Drury's own words, from a letter he later sent to Mr. Procter:
I sat down on the third story landing, fully expecting to account for any noises I might hear in a most philosophical manner; this was about 11 o'clock p.m. About 10 minutes to 12 we both heard a noise, as if a number of people were pattering with their bare feet upon the floor; and yet so singular was the noise that I could not minutely determine from whence it proceeded. A few minutes afterwards we heard a noise as if some one was knocking with his knuckles among our feet; this was immediately followed by a hollow cough from the very room from which the apparition proceeded. The only noise after this was as if a person was rustling against the wall in coming up stairs. At a quarter to one I told my friend that, feeling a little cold, I would like to go to bed, as we might hear the noises equally well there. He replied that he would not go to bed till daylight. I took up a note which I had accidentally dropped and began to read it; after which I took out my watch to ascertain the time, and found that it was ten minutes to one. In taking my eyes from the watch, they became riveted upon a closet door, which I distinctly saw open, and also saw the figure of a female, attired in greyish garments, with the head inclined downwards, and one hand pressed upon the chest as if in pain, and the other, that is the right hand, extended towards the floor, with the index finger pointing downwards. It advanced with an apparently cautious step across the floor towards me; immediately as it approached my friend, who was slumbering, its right hand was extended toward him. I then rushed at it, giving at the time, as Mr. Procter states, a most awful yell, but instead of grasping it I fell upon my friend, and I recollected nothing distinctly for nearly three hours afterwards. I have since learnt that I was carried downstairs in an agony of fear and terror.
Good to know that these ghosthunters got their money's worth.

A Mr. Dodgson, a brother of Mrs. Procter, had his own run-in with the ghost. A contemporary account of his experiences published in "Howett's Journal" described him as "of a peculiarly sensible, sedate, and candid disposition, a person apparently most unlikely to be imposed upon by fictitious alarms or tricks." When he visited the Willington home, he immediately found himself disturbed by "the strangest noises."
As he lay in bed one night he heard a heavy step ascend the stairs towards his room, and some one striking as it were with a thick stick the balusters as he went along. It came to his door, he essayed to call, but his voice died away in his throat. He then sprang from his bed, and opening the door found no one there, but now heard the same heavy steps deliberately descending (though perfectly invisible) the steps before his face, and accompanying the descent with the same loud blows on the balusters. He proceeded to the room of Mr. Procter, who he found had heard the sounds, and who also now arose, and with a light they made a speedy descent below, and a thorough search there, but without discovering anything that could account for the occurrence.

When two sisters of Mrs. Procter stayed at the home, they felt their bed being lifted up under them and shaken. Its curtains were drawn up, and they saw a female figure emerge from the wall, bend over them, and re-enter the wall. One day, one of the sisters, along with Thomas Mann and his wife and daughter, were standing outside the mill when they had yet another disturbing experience. They were treated to the sight of a man in a flowing robe like a surplice, gliding along about three feet from the ground. The figure entered the wall of the house at the second-story level. It then stood still in a window. It was semi-transparent and luminously bright. After a moment, it took on a blue aura, and gradually faded away. No one--that is to say, no living human--was in or near the house at the time.

On one occasion, the Procter's cook heard the latch on her door open. The candle next to her bed was suddenly snuffed out. As she sat in the darkness, a...something hit the headboard and she saw a dark shadow hovering by the bed. When she had sufficiently recovered from her fright to be able to move, she went to her door, only to find it still locked.

The family continued to be pestered by having their beds lifted up and shaken by invisible hands, accompanied by loud bangs on the wall. One night, Mrs. Procter felt a cold hand pressing upon her chest. One of the Procter's young sons complained of being picked up by a "large dog." The children also reported regularly seeing a woman dressed in grey. She had no eyes. One night, two of the Procter boys were awakened by a loud scream coming from the foot of their bed. Another night, the children were tormented by sounds of moaning, followed by running footsteps. On one occasion, a disembodied head was seen in the children's bedroom. The family continually heard what sounded like children's pattering footsteps on the upper floor, varied with the sounds of a heavy box being dragged across the floor. Periodically, ghoulish laughter could be heard. One day, the family was nonplussed to see what looked like a white towel walk across a room, slide under the door, and heavily walk up the stairs.

At times, the house resembled a Fortean zoo. Residents would see large catlike creatures, luminous sheep, monkeys wearing boots, silently gliding donkeys.

The ghost later took to ringing bells and calling family members by name. By this point, the Procter children were in such a state of terror that they refused to go into any room alone, even in daylight. As can be imagined, the Procters found it very difficult to keep servants.

By 1847, the strange sights and sounds had diminished appreciably, but the Procters had had enough. They sold the house and moved what they judged to be a safe distance away. Subsequent residents of the house reported few unusual happenings, and the "Willington Ghost" gradually faded from the public's memory.

Many legends sprang up attempting to "explain" the haunting--colorful tales of old murders committed at the site or of mysterious stone slabs buried in the home's cellar--but such tales were never verified. The truth is, no one has ever found any reason for why the mill was such a bedeviled place.

That may be the spookiest detail of all about this story.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by two more Cats From the Past!

These Siamese twins (so to speak) were owned by relatives of ours who live in Toronto.  I only met them once, during a visit we made when I was eight.  I'm sorry to say I don't remember their names.  All I recall about them was that they both had voices that could raise the dead.  When they joined together in chorus, it really was like the wailing of the damned.

I found it a curiously appropriate soundtrack for my stay there.

When the hell did Hitler die?

Who the hell was the Axeman of New Orleans?

Watch out for those novels!

Watch out for those spectral carpenters!

Watch out for those Los Angeles Witch Women!

If your cat starts dancing, prepare for trouble.

Texas urban legends.

A soldier goes all St. Sebastian, and lives to tell the tale.

Holy clay, Batman!

18th century "heavenly visitors."

The link between Katy Perry, the Illuminati, and JonBenet Ramsey, or yet another example of why we've all lost our ever-loving minds.

The mysterious death of a president's grandfather.

Eclipse, the most valuable horse in history.

Is this the face of Mary Magdalene?

Politics and crime in Birmingham.  "Politics and crime."  Sorry, I repeat myself there.

Old photos look at London's forgotten corners.

Otis Redding's brief career, and brutal end.

The execution of a 19th century stalker.

It's 1820.  You're moving to New York City.  Here are some tips.

The oasis under Antarctica.

Six-toed cats vs. Hurricane Irma.  Guess who won.

My birthday's in December.  If any of you have $124,000 handy and you'd like to buy me a present, here's an idea.   Beer party in my backyard, and the drinks are on me!

The sinking of a Gold Rush treasure trove.

Edgar Allan Poe, patron saint of "broke-ass freelancers."

Why you wouldn't want to be near any 18th century European who was contemplating suicide.

A dust-up in the desert, 1931.

The Wardenclyffe Tower:  Tesla's Waterloo.

An arrival in 1800 London.

Mozart's muse: a starling.

The debate over snuff.

The ghost of Somercotes.

An elopement in high life.

A murder committed by an indignant husband.

18th century "Aero-Nuts."

A wedding in a balloon, 1865.

Painting Victorian-era Paris.

The legend of Shakespeare's "lost ballad."

The tomb of an ancient Egyptian goldsmith.

A radical 18th century Quaker dwarf.

Well, who wouldn't forget about having a steel fork stuck in their back?

The Witch of Southwold.

Some interesting interviews with WWI "conscientious objectors."

Deciphering a nun's letter from Lucifer.

Deciphering purple spots in the Vatican.

Yet to be deciphered: a note from Ernest Shackleton.

How to dress your hair like a Victorian governess.

Early Modern beauty tips.

Early Modern treasonous magic.

The good old days of passport photos.

The haunting story of a boy who killed his parents.

This week in Russian Weird:  St. Petersburg is really booming!

And here is the grave of a Siberian "infant prince."

That's a wrap for this week.  Tune in on Monday, when we'll be looking at a haunted English mill.  In the meantime, here's some Boccherini:

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Because I'm all for people thinking outside the box and blazing bold new pathways, meet Miss Boomershine. Usually, we say that a certain person's life "went to the dogs." Miss B. stands alone in having her life go to the grasshoppers. From the Wilmington, N.C. "Daily Journal," November 7,1874:
Human ingenuity has been much exercised in devising new ways to live, but scant attention has hitherto been paid to the discovery of original methods of death. People have shuffled off this mortal coil in distressingly similar ways. It has been reserved for Miss Boomershine, of Phillips county, Kansas, to crown her sex with fresh glory by inventing a brand-new, first-class way of traveling to that bourne, etc. Miss B. had acquired, in her native village, in Georgia, the usual accomplishments of the belles of that neighborhood. She dipped snuff with the utmost dexterity, and she saved her parents much expense by cultivating a keen appetite for clay. It is said that in three weeks she ate up a small hill which was in the way of a projected railway, and thus saved the company the cost of excavation. Her rivals affirm, however, that the time spent was four weeks, instead of three. However this may be, there can be no doubt that our busy Miss B. was emphatically made of clay. Eve could not have surpassed her in that respect.

In an unlucky hour, the Boomershines moved into the grasshopper lands of Kansas. A distressing phenomenon followed. The daughter began to dislike her staple diet before half of the clay-bank opposite the house was consumed. This would not have been so bad in itself had she not developed, at the same time, an alarming fondness for all green things. What the grasshoppers had left she devoured. One night she swept the corn field bare. Her angry father sought her in vain next morning. She came home one day after an all-day lunch on two acres of potato vines. When other resources failed, she joined the family colt in the pasture lot, and played Nebuchadnezzar with such dexterity that the poor thing died three days thereafter from lack of food. From time to time she said she felt as if she could "take wings and fly away."

A doctor dosed her in vain. She grew worse rapidly. Her predatory excursions into the neighbors' fields embodied the whole vicinity. When the grasshoppers began to fly away, the end came. Miss B. watched them from the window. Her anxious friends followed just in time to see the hope of the Boomershines play boomerang by flapping her arms as if they were wings, rising ten feet in the air, and falling back into her tracks dead. A post mortem examination revealed the mystery. The clay the girl had consumed in Kansas was covered with grasshopper eggs. They had hatched out inside. She "was literally swarming with grasshoppers." Their influence had led to her vegetable eating, and their desire to go with their comrades had finally caused her death. The discovery of this new way to die belongs to Kansas; we are but the humble agency to give it a wide notoriety.
This story really bugs me.  "Bugs," get it?

Oh, come on. You know one of us had to say it, so I thought it might as well be me.

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Revolting and Horrible Affair: The West Twenty-Third Street Murder

Early on the morning of July 29th, 1870, Major-General Francis Blair awakened in his room in New York City's Fifth Avenue Hotel. Blair had had a distinguished career in the Mexican and Civil Wars, and in 1868, was the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate. It probably would have galled the Major-General no end if he had known that this blog's sole interest in him is that he was also a principal witness in one of Gotham's most famous unsolved murders.

Blair rose from his bed at about 5:30 a.m. The weather was miserably sticky and hot, so he opened his window in the hope of getting some measure of relief. As he stood by the window, he was just opposite a third-floor bedroom of the house next door. He could see a man in that bedroom, preparing to dress for the day.

It is a relief to learn that the Major-General was not a Peeping Tom. Blair merely closed his window shutters and went back to bed.

All was quiet for half-an-hour, when Blair was reawakened by sudden cries for help. When he looked out the window, he saw standing on the street below the man he had seen earlier, still in his night-clothes. He was now covered in blood. With him was another, younger man who was also only wearing a nightshirt. They were both nearly hysterical, shouting and waving their arms wildly. It did not take long before Blair--and the world--learned the very good reason why Frederick and Washington Nathan were in such a state: Their father, 57-year-old Benjamin Nathan, was lying dead in his bedroom. Someone had savagely beaten him to death. The blood on Frederick's nightclothes came when he cradled his father's body, desperately checking for some sign of life.

Although the Nathan patriarch is only remembered today for his grisly end, at the time he was one of the most well-known men in New York. This vice president of the New York Stock Exchange was immensely wealthy, and widely admired for his philanthropy and highly respectable private life. The large Nathan family--Benjamin and his wife had eight children--were leading members of the Jewish aristocracy. The idea that the head of the family could be brutally murdered in his own home seemed almost inconceivable. The "Police Gazette" spoke for everyone in New York when it moaned, "That a citizen so respected and benevolent as Benjamin Nathan, one who should have had not an enemy in all the world, that he should have had his life-spark extinguished with such shocking brutality made for a revolting and horrible affair."

On the night of the murder, most of the Nathans were at their summer home in New Jersey. The only family members at their main residence were Benjamin, Frederick, and Washington. With them was the housekeeper, Anne Kelly, and her twenty-five year old son William, who acted as a general odd-job man around the house.

Benjamin had only been making an overnight stay in New York, in order to attend to some business. As the house was being redecorated, Mrs. Kelly prepared makeshift quarters for him in a second-floor room. Frederick and Washington told police that they had spent the evening with their father, and then both left the house and went their separate ways. Neither returned home until past midnight. Their father was asleep in his room. The brothers noticed nothing amiss until the morning, when they discovered Benjamin's body. On the floor near the corpse was the murder weapon--an iron bar known as a "carpenter's dog." It was never determined where this "dog" came from.

The site of the Nathan mansion.

The motive appeared at first to have been robbery. The room was in complete disarray. A small safe in an adjoining room was open, and an empty cash-box was lying on Nathan's bed. Some minor items were missing. However, an even more sinister theory about the crime soon spread through the city: Gossip had it that Benjamin Nathan was murdered by his 22-year-old son Washington.

It's unclear how or why these vicious rumors began. It is true that Washington was the last person known to have seen his father alive, and he had been the first to discover the body. His habits were notoriously dissipated--it emerged that on the night his father was killed, Washington had been in the company of a prostitute--and his strait-laced father made no secret of his disapproval of such a lifestyle. Benjamin was so disturbed by his son's fondness for drink and disreputable women that he put a clause in his will putting Washington's inheritance in a trust. The young man would have access to the principal only when he made an acceptable marriage or he turned 25. Even then, his mother would have to sign an affidavit affirming that he "was living a life of regularity and sobriety." Still, all this seemed like very flimsy evidence against the Nathan black sheep. Washington had nothing to gain financially from his father's death. In fact, Benjamin had been very generous--arguably too generous--in providing his son with money. Investigators had no difficulty clearing him from suspicion. The rumors continued, however. Parricide was just too juicy a story for the public to give up on it without a fight.

Scene from the coroner's inquest.  Washington Nathan is second from the left.

As was the case in the murder of Harvey Burdell, it an odd fact that everyone in or around the Nathan home seemed oblivious that a particularly violent murder taking place near them. A couple who lived next door testified at the inquest that they heard several loud thuds at around 2 a.m., but at the time they did not believe it was of any importance. Other than that, no one reported anything unusual.

The Nathan murder was one of those cases where the investigation suffered from an almost total lack of clues. Benjamin had been on good terms with all his children--even his disagreements with Washington did not damage their mutual affection--and he had no known enemies. The most logical assumption was that he had been beaten to death by a burglar, but who might that have been? The coroner's jury had no choice but to return an open verdict.

Unfortunately, open the verdict has remained. Police were never able to gather enough evidence in the case to even charge anyone with the crime, leaving Benjamin Nathan's murder a classic puzzle. For some years afterward, the newspapers entertained their readers by publishing various dodgy "confessions," crank theories, and sensational rumors about the mystery, but it's safe to say they were all just so much hot air. On slightly more solid ground is the speculation that Anne Kelly's son William had something to do with the murder. He was a shiftless sort who ran in some highly questionable circles. Could he have been an accessory in a burglary that unexpectedly turned to murder? Unfortunately, there is no more hard evidence against him than there is for anyone else in this story. A thirteen-year-old newsboy claimed that shortly after 5 a.m. on the morning after the murder, he saw a man "dressed like a mason" exit the front door of the Nathan home. If the boy really did see this man, and was not just inventing a colorful story to draw attention to himself, the "mason" was never identified. But if it was a burglary, why choose a night when the house was occupied, when it had been empty all that summer? Even if Benjamin had surprised intruders, why did they attack him with such lethal ferocity? And, again, why did no one else in the house see or hear anything?

The closest the case came to being "solved" came when a Sing Sing inmate named George Ellis suddenly declared that he and a Billy Forrester had burglarized the Nathan house. When they unexpectedly encountered Benjamin, Forrester, in a panic, had bludgeoned him to death.

Forrester had been sentenced to a stretch in Joliet for an earlier offense, but escaped from prison. In September 1872, the fugitive was tracked down in Texas and brought to New York for examination. In short, while there was certainly enough about this career criminal to arouse the worst suspicions, the District Attorney was forced to conclude that "the technical facts...would fail in making out a case." Forrester was not charged with the Nathan murder, but merely sent back to Joliet to finish his sentence. This was said to be a great relief to him. As a postscript to this inconclusive footnote to the Nathan mystery, Forrester's attorney broadly hinted that he, at least, felt the case was no mystery at all. "In regard to Forrester," he wrote, "I cannot speak fully without violating professional honor, for the man was a client of my office; but I can say this, that from what I learned of him, Washington Nathan had no more to do with the killing of his father than I."

The enigmatic nature of the crime meant that Washington Nathan never really lived down the dark suspicions raised against him, and he lacked the strength of character to live with such a stigma. He quickly blew through his share of the family fortune on riotous living he no longer seemed to even enjoy. In 1879, Washington again made unenviable headlines when a former lover, incensed at being jilted, shot him in the face.. The bullet, which lodged in his jaw, was never removed. Several years later, he married an opera singer and moved permanently to Europe. In 1892, the once-handsome, pampered playboy died in Boulogne, a sad, white-haired old man of only forty-four. After his death, the "Chicago Tribune" described him as "always alone and unattended and wearing upon his face the expression of a man utterly dissolute." He spoke obsessively of his family tragedy, wailing that "No blood could ever be found on any of my clothes, yet people say that I killed him. My poor father! My poor father!" If, as seems likely, Washington Nathan was indeed innocent of his father's murder, he can be called the secondary victim of the crime.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by more of our Cats From the Past!

Meet Sissy (the tortoiseshell) and Sunny.  We took these two in when their previous owners could no longer keep them.  Sissy was a very shy, timid cat (she had been abused as a kitten,) and it took some time before she was able to trust us.  (She spent most of her first week here hiding under the couch.)  Her biggest quirk was that she would only eat dry food.  She refused all canned food (and we tried every brand out there.)  She was very sweet, and, once she settled in, happy with us, but I'm not sure if she was ever able to truly relax.  Sunny was well-named.  He had congenital health problems, but he was the most cheerful, pleasant cat imaginable.  He was always purring.

They were both adults when they joined our household, and, sadly, they were not with us long.  Sissy died very suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 7.  It turned out she had previously undiagnosed heart disease.  Poor Sunny, as I said above, was never really healthy, and he only lived to the age of 5.

What the hell did Shakespeare look like?

Watch out for those werewhales!

Watch out for those headless ghosts!

Watch out for those shrieking ghosts!

Watch out for those lantern flames!

Watch out for those demonic roosters!

The first heart surgery.

The first Japanese woman to get a college education.

Every week, there's a new Jack the Ripper, and a new solution to the Voynich Manuscript.

A lost Roman herb.

Some myths about Napoleon.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  Men, this is the ultimate guide to What Not To Do With Your...uh, important bits.  Just be warned: this is probably the most gruesome read I've ever posted on this blog.

Norwegian sheep are disappearing.  Missing 411, livestock edition.

Librarians on horseback.

Solving the oldest cold cases.

One of the plots to save Marie Antoinette.

Ancient underwater ruins off the coast of Tunisia.

When celery was a glamour food.  Yup, we're talking Victorians.

The folklore of harvests.

The evidence keeps piling up that Neanderthals were smarter than we think.

Ah, yes, the good old "no evidence" line.

The Shakespeare Jubilee.

The possible link between beached whales and the Northern Lights.

The Night Witches of WWII.

A pagan in 18th century Norfolk.

Medieval London was not the place to go for a quiet life.  Or a long one.

19th century women as "moral compasses."

Orwell reviews Hitler.

The colorful history behind America's first book.

William Birt, buried at the crossroads.

A boulder that's a home to elves.

A "lamentable tragedie" with a surprisingly long shelf life.

Victorian handshake etiquette.

Mysterious signals from deep space.

Louis XIV's court was very gay, in every sense of the word.

The execution of a WWI deserter.

An unusual plane crash.

Britain's Atlantis.

The controversy surrounding some ancient footprints.

The East India Company and the East Indies.

The downside to being an 18th century doctor's assistant.

The life of Mary Howard, Henry VIII's daughter-in-law.

Drunk thespians, faith's vomit, and a caked king:  Just another day at the court of Christian IV.

Canada's first pet cemetery.

Thieving at the theaters.

This week in Russian Weird:  When you don't move, but your house does.

And that's it for this week! Join us on Monday, when we'll look at murder in 19th century New York. In the meantime, here's the Rose Ensemble.  Not the most seasonable song, I know, but I like it.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Our latest look at the "Boston Post" series, "Famous Cats of New England" looks at a drugstore champion:
Drugstore cats have not figured on the lists of New England's famous cats, and Peter from East Boston wonders why. Peter is a 14 years old drugstore cat who weighs just 14 pounds. The champion of Maverick square--that's Peter.

Never a stray cat wanders into the Woodbury's Drug Store, where Peter holds sway, that is not forcibly reminded by Peter that the open air is a healthier place for cats and dogs. Peter's throne and place of vantage from which he looks for trouble in the form of such invaders is a stool by the soda fountain.

It's not eating ice cream and candy and such soft dainties that have made Peter so successful in giving the K.O. blows that land outsiders where they belong. Peter eats only once in every 24 hours; then heartily of man's size food--meat and milk and potato.

To folks who come to shop, however, Peter is cordial as any greeter. He has a "welcome home" smirk that would arouse a hotel man's envy. He extends his paw like a dog to shake "howdy" and is a great favorite. Many of the children of the district insist on having their ice cream in Maverick square just so that they can talk to Peter.

"Champ" Safrin, caretaker in chief of Peter, found him one morning with a broken jaw. The cause has never been discovered, but a cure was effected speedily. Peter was rushed off to the Animal Hospital and the veterinary cut a piece from Peter's jaw pulled out two old teeth and by proper plaster casting and later careful massaging Peter was made as good as new.
~January 10, 1921
Woodbury's--a pioneering cat cafe.

[Note:  As far as I can tell, Peter was the final "Famous Cat." I can find no more of  this series in the "Post" archives.  Farewell, Famed Felines!]

Monday, September 4, 2017

Never Bored: The Many Wars of Alfred Wintle

War, as William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, is hell. What goes less often remarked is that war is also weird. And it was never weirder than when Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Daniel "I am never bored when I am present" Wintle was in the house. It is often hard to believe that Wintle really existed, rather than living in a P.G. Wodehouse novel as a parody of the "patriotic true-born Englishman." He could have been Roderick Spode's more madcap brother. We are talking here about a man who got down on his bended knee every night to thank God for making him an Englishman, "the greatest honour He could ever bestow. After all, he might have made me a chimpanzee, or a flea, a Frenchman or a German!"

Ironically enough, Wintle, the son of a diplomat (secondary irony) was born in Ukraine in 1897, a fact he naturally liked to keep hidden. During his service in WWI, a German shell left him without the fingers of his left hand and his left eye. His right eye was so damaged that he had to wear a monocle for the rest of his life. Such was his hatred for the Hun that he considered the sacrifice well worth the loss. What upset him far more was that his injuries were keeping him from the Front. He made an attempt to escape the hospital disguised as a nurse, but his monocle (not to mention his mustache) gave him away. Wintle's politically-connected father was eventually able to persuade the army to allow him to return to battle. Wintle returned the favor by single-handedly capturing thirty-five of the enemy, a feat that earned him the Military Cross.

Wintle was probably the only person on the planet who was sorry to see the war end. Never was there a less peaceful man. His reaction to the Armistice was to write in his diary, "I declare private war on Germany!" He made such a pest of himself nagging his military superiors to restart the conflict that they finally posted him to Ireland, just to be rid of him. Wintle handled his exile in characteristic style. During a spell in Aldershot Military Hospital (he had broken his leg when falling from a horse) he saw in a nearby bed a young man named Cecil Mays. Mays was suffering from a combination of mastoiditis and diptheria, and simply waiting for the end. Doctors had written the boy off as a hopeless case. Not Wintle. He considered a soldier dying away from the battlefield as a violation of army regulations. Wintle indignantly hobbled over to the stricken boy and bellowed, "You will stop dying at once! And, when you get up, get your bloody hair cut!"

Such was the Power of Wintle that the boy obeyed. Mays went on to make a full recovery and lived to the age of 95. He was, Mays later said, "too terrified to die."

During his convalescence, Wintle turned to writing fiction, hiding his identity behind the pseudonym "Michael Cobb." (He explained that "For a cavalry officer, to be literate, let alone write, is a disgrace.") He achieved a fair amount of success. One of his novels, "The Emancipation of Ambrose," was even turned into a movie.

Wintle's dearest wish came true in September 1939, when hostilities towards his archenemies, the Germans, were resumed. Much to his disgust, however, when he sought to reenter active service, he found the army had little desire to take on a half-blind, half-fingerless man in his forties. He contemplated forming his own private platoon to fight the Nazis, but--unfortunately for the history books--that particular plan came to nothing. Wintle sulked on the Home Front until the British disaster at Dunkirk. Aflame with rightous fury at this debacle, Wintle marched up to the Air Ministry and demanded they give him a plane. He wished to fly to Bordeaux and order all the French airmen there to instantly join the RAF.

The Air Commander, A.R. Boyle, showed a lack of enthusiasm for the idea. Wintle pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot Boyle. Wintle was then escorted to the Tower of London to await his court martial.

On his way to his cell, Wintle learned that his arrest warrant had been lost. The exasperated prisoner marched off to the warrant office to get a new one. There, he learned that he was the only one present with sufficient rank to issue the order. With, no doubt, an air of "I have to do everything around here," he did so.

Yes. Wintle arrested himself.

When word got out about the circumstances of his arrest, the guards at the Tower treated Wintle as a hero. He was virtually given the run of the place. He had his own servant, as many visitors as he pleased, and was given the finest delicacies to eat--so much so, that he came down with indigestion. "Being a prisoner in the Tower had its points," he later noted.

Wintle's trial went just about the way you'd think. When asked to respond to the charge that he had pointed a gun at Boyle with the words, "People like you ought to be shot," Wintle added a further number of people who would benefit from patriotic assassination--a list which included the War Secretary. His court martial threatened to become such an embarrassing farce for the Government that they reduced his punishment to a "severe reprimand" and packed him off to Syria, where he did intelligence work. In 1941, he was transferred to Occupied France. For reasons that frankly escape me, his superiors thought this least subtle of men would make a good spy.

Wintle went about the place with gold coins strapped under his armpits and carrying an umbrella. (This last was because he considered it to be a true Englishman's duty to have an umbrella at all times, although "No true gentleman would ever unfurl one.") Surprise, surprise, his cover was soon blown, and he was arrested and sent to a Vichy prison camp. Wintle sportingly informed his guards that he considered it his duty to escape, particularly since his captors were all "swivel-eyed sons of syphilitic slime-frogs" completely unfit to guard the the shining likes of a British officer. He was also so appalled by the lack of proper military dress-sense shown by the slime...uh, French guards that he went on a two-week hunger strike.

True to his word, Wintle did escape, and successfully fled into Spain. There is a legend--which I can only earnestly hope is true--that the camp commandant and his men were so chagrined by this defeat (not to mention their former prisoner's stinging words about their slovenly habits and general lack of morals) that the entire garrison turned their coats and joined the Resistance.

After the war, Wintle decided to run for Parliament. He did this not to uphold the political system, but to destroy what he saw as a hopelessly corrupt structure from within. "Guy Fawkes," he declared, "was the last man to enter Parliament with good intentions. You need another man like me to carry on his good work."

Regretfully, the voters of his district failed to agree with this novel and energetic political platform, and he lost the election. It was around this time that he wrote a letter to the "Times," which has rightly gained a certain immortality:
I have just written you a long letter. On reading it over, I have thrown it into the waste-paper basket. Hoping this will meet with your approval.
I am, Sir, Your Obedient Servant,
A.D. Wintle
Our hero closed the 1940s by making his own unique form of legal history. Wintle's cousin, Kitty Wells, was, hard though that may be to believe, an even stranger character. Wintle's characterization of her as a "jelly-fish" was blunt, but not inaccurate. Wells was a reclusive woman of limited intelligence and even more limited interests. Her sole occupation in life was to write and post herself letters. When they were delivered, she would open and read them with as much excitement and delight as if they had been from a far-off loved one. She then tenderly stored the precious letters all over her house.

Wintle's sister Marjorie had been Wells' sole caretaker for many years, so when Kitty died in 1947, it was a surprise to learn that her will left most of her estate of £115,000 not to the loyal Marjorie, but to Kitty's solicitor, Frederick Nye. Nye had, of course, drawn up the will for his client.

Wintle was outraged by this bit of sly dealing. He denounced Nye as "a cad, a liar, a thief, and an embezzler." He filed suit against the solicitor. That was not enough for Wintle, however. Yes, he wanted Nye to return the money, but more importantly, he wanted Nye humiliated before the world. He wanted his suit to get as much publicity as possible.

So, naturally, there was nothing else to do but kidnap the man.

One fine day in April 1955, Wintle phoned Nye. Disguising his voice, he claimed to be an old acquaintance of the solicitor's, Lord Norbury. He arranged a meeting at a flat Wintle had rented for the occasion. When Nye arrived at the door, Wintle yanked him inside, produced a gun, and ordered Nye to write a check to Marjorie for the sum of £1,000. Then, he had Nye put on a dunce cap and take off his pants. He took several photographs of Nye in this undignified pose and then kicked the still-pantsless man into the street.

Wintle happily showed the photos to everyone he met, and had Nye's pants exhibited in his club's trophy room. That evening, Wintle's busy day's work was crowned by his arrest for assault and (due to the check he had forced Nye to sign) fraud. At his trial that summer, the judge instructed jurors to throw out the latter charge, ruling that "if a person honestly believed he was entitled to something he could have no intent to defraud." Wintle readily pled guilty to the assault charge, and received six months in prison. When he heard the verdict, Wintle loftily told the courtroom that "It will be a sad day for this country when an officer and a gentleman is not prepared to go to prison when he thinks he is in the right."

Wintle spent his time in Wormwood Scrubs studying the law. He was far from finished with Solicitor Nye. In fact, he had barely begun to fight. "I deal with matters from a military point of view," he said. "I regard Mr. Nye as an enemy, and I do not disclose my plans until they are matured. Then I launch my heavy artillery on him and we get busy."

Wintle's "heavy artillery" took the form of endless lawsuits against Nye. He was perfectly happy to spend every dime he had in endless lawsuits, if he could only bankrupt the enemy camp, as well.  (Among his legal advisers was none other than Cecil Mays, who by then was a successful civil servant with a law degree.)  After a number of reverses in the Court of Appeal, Wintle launched the extreme step of taking his legal campaign to the House of Lords. As by then he had no money left for attorneys, he represented himself. It was an utterly daft idea.

And it was utterly successful. He won his case. It was the first time a person representing himself managed to persuade the House of Lords to reverse a decision made by the Court of Appeal, and wouldn't you just know that Alfred Wintle would be the guy to do it. In 1960, Wintle's victory was complete when Nye was disbarred.

Alfred Wintle was not, I repeat, not a man to be messed with.

Wintle died in May 1966 at the age of 68. It must have been a great disappointment to the old warrior that he died quietly at his home and not on a battlefield. His autobiography may have been titled, "The Last Englishman," but that designation hardly does credit to the man's character. Wintle surely was "The One-Of-A-Kind Englishman."