"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day






This installment of the "Boston Post's" "Famous Cats of New England" pays tribute to a feline who refuted the popular notion that cats are selfish creatures:
Peter Pan Wass lives in East Boston. Peter Pan Wass's name has appeared in the lists of many worthy charities and public movement funds, such as the Sacred Cow fund and the Santa Claus fund. Peter Pan Wass is East Boston's charitable cat.

Peter has a purse. Some admirer gave it to him. This purse Peter carries about in his mouth very often when in the house. Callers upon his mistress bestow pennies for Peter's purse; therefore Peter through his own effort is able to contribute his pence for whatever interests him.
~January 7, 1921

All went well until the day it dawned on Peter that charity begins at home. He scooped up his store of donations, booked a flight to the Caribbean, and was last heard of on a beach in Aruba, drinking beer, smoking a fat cigar, and surrounded by beautiful, scantily-clad admirers.

Sorry to have to be the one to tell you that.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Female Stranger



One of American history’s most romantic mysteries centers around a grave found in St. Paul’s churchyard in Alexandria, VA. The gravestone's epitaph reads:

TO THE MEMORY
OF A
FEMALE STRANGER
Whose mortal sufferings terminated
on the 14th day of October, 1816
Aged 23 years and 8 months 
This stone is erected by her disconsolate husband
in whose arms she breathed out her last sigh, and
who, under God, did his utmost to soothe the cold,
dull ear of death. 
How loved, how honored once, avails thee not,
To whom related, or by whom begot;
A heap of dust alone remains of thee—
‘Tis all thou art and all the proud shall be. 
“To whom gave all the prophets witness, that through His name, whosoever believeth on Him shall receive remission of sins.”
-Acts, 10th, 43rd verse

Trying to discover the true story behind this enigmatic epitaph—let alone the identity of the “stranger”--is enough to give any historical detective the vapors, as accounts of this young woman’s stay in Alexandria show a wearying lack of consistency. All that can be said with reasonable certainty is that sometime either in the summer or the fall of 1816, a young woman and a man who identified himself as her husband arrived in the busy port city. She was (depending on whose story you believe,) either already ill, fell ill soon after her arrival, or she delivered a child sometime after reaching Alexandria, only to die of complications from childbirth. Some accounts state she remained heavily veiled until her death, others that her exceedingly beautiful face was visible. All stories agree that the couple insisted on keeping themselves anonymous.

After the woman died, some accounts say the husband ordered a monument, with the inscription quoted above, and disappeared. Or was it that he left town indigent, leaving a trail of debts behind him, and the townspeople, out of the goodness of their hearts, gave the mystery woman a tombstone? Some say he continued to visit the grave every year on the anniversary of her death for about a dozen years. Others claim he was never seen again.

One tale has it that the mystery woman’s grave gradually deteriorated from neglect, until some years later, when an elderly, gentlemanly-looking man and two equally aged women suddenly appeared and ordered the sexton of the churchyard to see that her burial place was properly attended to. Under his questioning, the trio finally admitted they were related to the dead woman, and that her husband had been a British officer. Then they fled. Is this story true? Who knows? Unexplained oddities such as the grave of the Female Stranger tend to sprout myths-related-as-fact the way an untended yard grows weeds.

This is all we have to work with. Who was this woman, and why was her identity so earnestly protected?

The most popular local legend is that she was Aaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia, who was lost at sea early in 1813. Presumably, the man was either her husband Joseph Alston (never mind that Alston died in September 1816,) or some pirate who had rescued her and subsequently become enamored of the young lady. As oft-told as the story is—and it is only one of dozens of wild theories regarding the “true fate” of Theodosia Burr—its many manifest improbabilities forbid one from taking the idea seriously. Some speculate they were an eloping couple, of such high birth as to make it imperative to keep their names hidden. Or that they were a pirate and his lady fair. Or Napoleon Bonaparte in disguise! One can choose between any number of different tales. Naturally, it is also said that "Gadsby's Tavern," the reputed site of this woman's death, is still haunted by her nameless spirit.

My favorite solution to the mystery appeared in the “New Orleans Crescent” in 1848. The writer of the article claimed to have been in Alexandria at the time of the mystery couple’s sojourn. He asserted that the man calling himself the woman’s husband (the legality of their union was seen as highly dubious) was a con artist named Clermont who executed various swindles and ran up a staggering amount of bills. After the lady’s death, Clermont “vamoosed,” without paying any of his debts, and was last heard from doing a stretch in a New York prison for forgery.

I have my doubts if this tale is any more accurate than the others, but a blogger can dream, can’t she?

In any case, it is difficult to even guess why this couple would be so anxious to stay anonymous—even into the grave—but I have the sneaking suspicion that if we knew the answer, it would be something quite distressingly uninteresting.

History has a way of playing jokes on us all.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is sponsored by another of our Cats of the Past.  Meet Pongo.  In 1982, some SOB dumped this tiny kitten in the alley behind our house.  He lived to the age of 18.  He was a kindly, good-natured guy, but with a very strong personality.  You couldn't push him around in the slightest.





He also liked to spy.


And sit in the kitchen sink.





Watch out for those Untoos!

A phantom carriage.

What it's like to be struck by lightning.  (Spoiler:  Not good.)

The difficulties of the French revolutionary calendar.

"Poet, Philosopher, & Failure."  Quite an epitaph.

An eyewitness look at the Halifax Explosion.

Science tells us that dogs are good.  Well, thanks so much, Science. We'd never have guessed that on our own.

Father and son hangmen.

The dashing Poe.

The folk-healing cobbler of Bexhill.

Napoleon visits the Pyramids.

An ancient curse tablet.

A roundup of 18th and 19th century vehicles.

Eyewitnesses to the Great Los Angeles Air Raid.

The 75-year-old case of a missing couple has finally been solved.

A ghost's revenge.

A highly unusual "close encounter."

When your surgeon really is a butcher.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  The Drunken Dutchman's Guts; or, How Not to Induce Yourself to Vomit.

London's orphaned art.

Mars now has weather forecasters.

The famous 18th century horse "Eclipse."

Victorian golf etiquette.

A 1928 ghost scare.

Michelangelo's hidden drawings.

More in the world of sound archaeology.

More in the world of drunk archaeology.

Examining Otzi's axe.  (On a side note, is the Iceman the most remarkable case of posthumous fame in history?)

The murder of the Romanovs.

Ring legends.

The "fatal sisters."

The brief life of Edward of Middleham.

That time Miss Jenny the Cheetah visited England.

A deadly insult.

This week in Russian Weird:  Siberia's copper mummies.

And we're done! See you on Monday, when we'll look at a mysterious early 19th century woman. In the meantime, here's some Moondance.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day



This cautionary tale about the Fortean dangers of second-hand clothes comes from the "Louisville Courier-Journal," August 14, 1897:

The residents of Muldraugh, a summer resort much frequented by Louisville people and located about twenty-eight miles from this city, on the Illinois Central railroad in Meade county, are just now in the midst of a six weeks sensation in which spirits other than the kind Kentucky has made famous figure.

Tom Gill, who occupies a cottage near the town, is the present possessor of a rough wooden coffin filled with clothes and trinkets which formerly belonged to his brother, but about which there has been from time to time considerable controversy.

For the past six weeks mysterious knockings have proceeded from the coffin, and in spite of watchful investigation, both by the enlightened and the ignorant of the neighborhood, no one has yet been able to account for the noises.

The story back of the rappings and the one upon which the theory of spirits is built is quite an interesting one.

Nine years ago Zach Gill got into a quarrel with Widow McCarthy about a cow. He waylaid her on the road and shot her dead with a shotgun. He was arrested and convicted, but through the testimony of the late Dr. B.K. Fusey he was adjudged insane and sent to the asylum for the insane at Lakeland. He died two years after he was taken to the asylum and his remains were placed in one of the rough wooden coffins provided by the State and sent to the man's widow. In the box were placed the man's clothes and other belongings. The body was placed in a coffin provided by the family, and the clothes and trinkets were left in the rough wooden box.

Tom Gill, a brother of the unfortunate man, claimed all these things, but the dead man's widow refused to give them up. She set the gruesome relics in the attic, and there they remained up to a few months ago, when she died. Tom Gill at once took possession of the coffin and its contents and removed them to his home a short distance away. At the same time a son of the late Zach Gill claimed that the things belonged to him, but Tom would not listen to his contention. 
After Tom had the things he was put to some trouble to dispose of them. He finally set the coffin out on the porch in plain sight of the people who pass the house daily. For some time nothing out of the ordinary occurred. About six weeks ago, however, about the time of the arrival of summer boarders, strange noises began to be heard. Tom Gill, indeed, was awakened by rapping apparently on his door, which is immediately behind the coffin. The rappings disturbed his sleep. He got up and opened the door, and was not a little surprised to find no one about. He shut the door and again retired. He had hardly stretched himself when the rapping were repeated. He again got up and still found no one at the door. He believed that someone was playing a practical joke on him, so instead of going immediately back to, he stood up behind the door, which he left unlocked. As soon as the rapping were repeated he jerked the door open, leaving no time for any practical joker to get out of the way. No one was there. 

Then it was that his attention was attracted by a peculiar tapping in the coffin. He got a lantern and opened the coffin, taking out all the clothes and examining them carefully. His search was unrewarded. As soon as he shut down the coffin lid the rapping was repeated. By this time he was in a highly excited and nervous state, so he hastily sought refuge in the house and tightly locked the door. Since then not a day or night has passed that the knocking has not been heard. The story that spirits had begun to visit Tom Gill's home soon attracted every villager to the haunted spot, and scarcely a day passes that a group of curious people can not be found about the coffin waiting to hear the strange noise. These mysterious sounds have afforded diversion for about fifty Louisville boarders at the Twin Caves Hotel a short distance away. They hold nightly ghost parties and sit about the coffin in solemn state waiting for the spirit to materialise. They have opened the coffin, but have been unable to discover any cause for the peculiar phenomenon. The ignorant say that it is the spirit of old Zach Gill trying to tell to whom the clothes should be given. Of course the enlightened visitors and the intelligent inhabitants of Muldraugh do not believe a spirit is responsible for the sounds, but they admit that they are unable to discover just what does cause them.

The story appeared in a handful of newspapers for a few months, apparently without any resolution.  It is unknown what finally happened to those all-too-lively relics.

As a side note, I miss the days when hotel entertainment included haunted coffins full of rapping clothes.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Malloy the Invincible



If murder had its own joke book (and really, if it doesn't, it should,) one of the most popular selections would begin, "A psychotic cab driver, a syphilitic ginmill owner, and a crooked undertaker walk into a bar..." It would be a fitting tribute to an epic tale that is arguably true-crime's most grimly hilarious assassination plot.

Our story opens in the speakeasy run by Tony Marino on New York's Third Avenue. The year was 1932. Marino had recently suffered a crushing personal loss. His girlfriend, Betty Carlsen, had died of what the medical examiner ruled was a combination of pneumonia and chronic alcoholism. It would perhaps be insensitive to mention that word on the street had it that Miss Carlsen's fatal illness came about when she was encouraged to drink herself into unconsciousness, after which she was placed overnight in an freezing-cold room, stripped naked, and had buckets of icy water poured over her insensible form. It is also probably not worth mentioning that Marino's sorrow was greatly eased by the $800 in life insurance he collected upon her death.

Tony Marino


Marino shared news of this palliative to grief with his friends: A taxi-driver named Harry Green, Marino's bartender Joe Murphy, an all-purpose professional robber named Dan Kreisberg, and perhaps the most indispensable member of the group, undertaker Frank Pasqua.

This tidy little windfall stirred the group's ambitions to new heights. Death is the great inevitability in this world, they reasoned. Happens eventually to us all. Since that is the case, it seemed silly to have people slip from this life without benefiting others. If you're going to die, do so in a way that brings joy and financial aid to others!

These men were true humanitarians.

One day in December 1932, as Marino and his cronies pondered the enticing potentialities of life insurance, their eyes happened to land on one of Marino's most frequent customers, an aging, homeless ex-fireman named Michael Malloy.

Malloy was one of those sad specimens of humanity found in such depressing numbers in any large city. No one seemed to know much of anything about him, and worse, no one cared. He had no known family, friends, or interests in life other than drinking. He was the sort of person who passes in and out of this life completely unnoticed.

Well, on this particular evening, he was certainly noticed by Tony Marino. To the rest of the world, Malloy looked like an uninteresting, valueless figure. To the Marino gang, he resembled a potential gold mine. "He looks all in," Marino's practiced eye proclaimed. "He ain't got much longer to go anyhow. The stuff is gettin' him."

Their first act was to get Malloy's life insured. Just the sensible, practical thing to do. Through the good offices of the less reputable employees of Metropolitan Life and Prudential, our little crew managed to get three different policies on Malloy's life (under the name of "Nicholas Mellory,") for a total of $1,788. There were double indemnities on the policies in case "Mellory" met his death by accident.

After all, life is hazardous, and full of nasty surprises. Best to be prepared for anything.

The gang then moved on to Phase Two. They obviously had in mind that Malloy should die from perfectly natural, if greatly accelerated, causes. To Malloy's delight, he found that the previously ungenerous Marino was more than happy to serve him drinks on the house. In fact, the bar owner seemed positively eager for Malloy to drink his fill. The whisky, gin, scotch, and bourbon was poured into him like it was water. "Ain't I got a thirst?" he told his new pals gleefully.

To the Marino gang's astonishment, these free drinks had no more visible effect on Malloy than if they had been water. For days, the elderly man guzzled enough cheap hootch to stun an elephant and rather than impairing him, it seemed to give Malloy a new lease on life. This non-stop liquid diet made him blossom like a rose. There was a vitality and good cheer about him that gave great unease to anyone with a financial interest in his life expectancy. Besides, all this free liquor--not to mention the monthly insurance premiums-- made a serious dent in their profit margin.

While the Marino gang understandably did not leave detailed notes on their next moves, neighborhood gossip had it that they took to giving Malloy drinks that are not on standard cocktail menus. Wood alcohol on the rocks. Turpentine with a twist. Horse liniment with an antifreeze chaser. Shots of rat poison. No matter what he was served, Malloy happily gulped it down and asked for seconds.

By January 1933, Green and Pasqua decided it was time for more direct measures. One dark and cold night, they poured Malloy glasses of various hellbrews until he was in a stupor, hauled him to the Bronx Zoo, took off his coat and shirt, poured cold water over him, and left him to become a human popsicle.

The next day, as the gang at Tony Marino's optimistically scanned the newspaper obituaries, their hopes were dashed when Malloy cheerfully strolled in. He had caught a bit of a chill last night, he said. He'd be as good as new once he had a few drinks.

The escapade, however, left Pasqua with a bad case of tonsillitis. He feared that murdering Michael Malloy was going to be the death of him.

The gang turned to more scientific methods. Bartender Murphy offered Malloy oysters soaked in denatured alcohol. Finger-lickin' good, as far as the Irishman was concerned. Murphy then opened a can of sardines and waited until they had quite thoroughly spoiled. He spread the ptomaine-rich delicacy on some bread and threw in a garnish of metal shreds and carpet tacks. He then offered this sandwich of death to his favorite customer. Malloy found it a rare treat. All it needed was a pint or so of turpentine to wash it down.

The Marino gang began to feel like they had been plunged into a nightmare. They were going bankrupt trying to kill a man who appeared to be more invincible than Superman. However, they had invested too much in Malloy to turn back now. There was nothing for it but to try, try again.

Late on the night of January 30, a policeman came across an unconscious form lying in the intersection of Baychester Avenue and Gun Hill Road. The man had been run over. Several times. Authorities did not know it at the time, but the victim had been hit by a taxicab.

One very particular taxicab.

At the hospital, they determined that the injured man--in addition to being a severe alcoholic--had suffered a concussion, a fractured skull, and a broken shoulder. Considering his already frail physical condition, it looked very doubtful that he would survive.

Given all that, one can imagine the disappointment when just one week later, the still-bandaged Malloy walked gratefully into Marino's speakeasy. After what he had been through, he told his friends, "I'm dying for a drink!"

If only Malloy could have known that he had uttered one of the greatest punchlines in crime history.

The gang decided to try a different tack. Rather than killing Malloy--something that was looking like an impossible dream--perhaps they could murder a more cooperative substitute? They found a particularly luckless local drunk named Joe Murray, slipped into his pocket some papers establishing that he was "Nicholas Mellory," and Green ran him down several times with his cab. Fortunately, another driver came along before Green could finish the job, and Murray eventually recovered. Malloy's invincibility seemed to be contagious.

It has been estimated that by this stage of the game, our little Murder, Incorporated had spent about $1800 trying to murder a man who was worth, at best, $1788. By this point, however, the money had almost ceased to matter. This had become personal. The would-be killers' amour propre and sense of professional pride was at stake. The Marino troop could not look themselves in the mirror as long as Michael Malloy walked this earth. They promised two men named McNally and Salone $400 if they would kill Malloy. This offer was rejected.

Finally, on February 22, 1933, the gang celebrated the Washington's Birthday holiday by putting Malloy into a drunken stupor. Then, they brought him to a room in a Fulton Avenue flophouse. One end of a rubber hose was attached to the gas-tap. The other end was placed in Malloy's mouth.

By morning, the gang saw to their deep satisfaction that Malloy the Invincible was only human after all.

Naturally, Pasqua the undertaker was brought in to deal with the corpse. He contacted a Dr. Frank Manzella, who, for a payment of $100, was quite willing to issue a death certificate stating that the cause of Malloy's demise was "pneumonia."

The Marino gang had won the battle, but soon found they lost the war. When the time finally came to collect that hard-won insurance money, most of the confederates were in prison on various unrelated charges. When this interesting fact came to the attention of the police, it caused them to take a second look at Malloy's death. The more they looked, the more they found. Malloy's body was exhumed--his killers, feeling they had already spent quite enough money on their victim, had given him a $12 funeral in the local Potter's Field--and it was easily determined that he had died from inhaling illuminating gas. The Marino gang--quickly dubbed by the newspapers, "The Murder Trust" were charged with Malloy's death.



It was one of the least suspenseful murder trials New York has ever seen. After the inevitable verdict, Marino, Murphy, Kriesberg and Pasqua all took a seat in the state's electric chair. Green was given a long prison sentence. Pasqua's crooked doctor friend, Dr. Manzella, was convicted as an accessory.

And Michael Malloy took his most unusual place in history.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is sponsored by these two Cats From the Past.  These two handsome fellows belonged to neighbors of my family once upon a time, before I was even born.  I don't know their names or anything else about them, but here's to you, guys.





Who the hell built the Shell Grotto of Margate?

Who the hell killed Lord Darnley?   (One of my favorite historical rabbit holes...)

What the hell happened to Amelia Earhart?  Here's the solution du jour.

Watch out for the Sand-Walker!

Watch out for the White Lady!

Watch out for those gnomes!

Watch out for those Arcadian werewolves!

The trials of James Joyce's "Ulysses."

High Strangeness in an Indian village.

A map of Hell.

Gallows folklore.

The life of Madame de Stael.

John Quincy Adams really should have stayed on dry land.

The story behind La Marseillaise.

Scaring the life out of a murderer, in every sense.

Cats and dogs: guardians against Victorian spousal abuse.

Some lovely color photos of two Edwardian girls.

The latest research into Easter Island.

A vaudeville midget's tragic end.

Charles Dickens throws a detective party.

How to make 2,000 year old bread.

And follow that up with 9,000 year old cocktails.  (Incidentally, "alcohol archaeologist" is one of the greatest job titles ever.)

Jane Austen in her contemporary newspapers.

I love this obituary.

An 18th century courtesan and Charles James Fox.

real Tintin.

The case of Typhoid Mary, America's most notorious cook.

It turns out that Abraham Lincoln's dog was assassinated, too.

The death of the Duke of Orleans.

A Versailles in North Germany.

Florence Bearse:   hero of the week.

A Georgian educational reformer.

How the Black Death may have affected the environment.

A turnpike tour of London.

A cache of ancient Roman letters has been discovered.

A kiss from a fairy.

The Sun is getting weird.

Imprisonment in Early Modern England.

Oh, just another "live lizard in your stomach" story.

Oh, just another "flaming belches" story.

Well, if your clothes closet is haunted, help is on the way.  Or you could just buy some mothballs.

Mapping Emperor Norton.

In search of St. Columba.

Witches in the fields and little people dancing in the moonlight:  Just another day in Buckinghamshire.

Mystery stone-throwing in Africa.

The sad case of Adele Hugo.

A jilted medieval princess.

The mysterious Jane Fool.

And that's the end for this week.  See you on Monday, when we'll look at one of the nuttiest murder cases of the 1930s.  In the meantime, here's some Telemann.



Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day





This installment of the "Boston Post" series, "Famous Cats of New England" looks at a pampered Vermont baby:
What's the fun of ever being a grown-up cat and roaming far afield to acquire a fighting record when right at home's so comfy and there's milk in a nice little bottle, and a dear mistress to see to one's breakfast each day?

That's what Sam, two-year-old tiger cat of Norwich, Vermont, wants to know. Sam thinks he's pretty famous, too, for he has heard his little mistress, Grace Ferrin, say that she's sure he's the only two-year-old cat in New England that has nursed from a bottle all his life. Moreover Sam holds the bottle from which he breakfasts daily all by himself. He lies, baby fashion, in his missy's arms and supports the bottle with his hind feet, at the same time clutching it up near the neck with his fore-paws.

"No scrapper, but very bright," is the way Sam is characterized up in Norwich. He knows perfectly well how to answer the question. "Sam do you want your bottle?" and he willingly leaves a saucer of milk to take it from the bottle instead. Sam was born in Hebron N.H., but this fall came to add to the famous cat population of the Green Mountain State.
~January 6, 1921

I do like a cat who knows he has the good life.