"...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, April 24, 2017

The Curse of the Setons; Or, The Dangers of Confusing An Ancient Tomb With a Souvenir Shop

Dundee Courier, March 29, 1937


A familiar and beloved theme of horror films is "tourists bring home ancient relic they nicked, soon learn to regret it." However, there is at least one notable instance where this well-worn Fortean cliche allegedly played out in real life. Sir Alexander Hay Seton, 10th Baronet of Abercorn, (1904-1963) came to believe that his wife's macabre act of Egyptian souvenir-hunting essentially destroyed his entire family.

Seton's account of the disaster--which needs only a creepy film score and a cameo by Christopher Lee to make the cinematic resemblance complete--was included in his (unpublished) autobiography, "The Transgressions of a Baronet." As you will see, he considered his major "transgression" to be getting on the wrong side of the Gods.

Alexander Seton, 1939


In the spring of 1936, Seton and his wife Zeyla were touring Egypt. Initially, at least, the visit was idyllic. Although the baronet was "disappointed" by the Valley of Kings ("there was really little to see,") they were thrilled by the Temple at Luxor. After two days of sight-seeing, (including a ride on "a rather unpleasant camel,") the couple returned to their hotel in Cairo, literally under the shadow of the Great Pyramid.

Their mood was of "complete satisfaction," augmented by Seton receiving a check from an editor in Glasgow who had bought an article Sir Alexander had written about their trip. Their guide informed them that some tombs had recently been discovered behind the Pyramid. Although they were not of any great historical value, he said that the Setons might find it interesting to view the finishing stages of the excavation. Although the Egyptians greatly frowned upon visitors entering the tombs, it was arranged that for an extra fee, the guide would sneak them inside. Sir Alexander--perhaps speaking with the benefit of hindsight--wrote that he had a bad feeling about committing what the locals would consider a sacrilege, but his wife persuaded him to accompany her. "I wish earnestly to God that we had not gone!"

Zeyla Seton, Sunday Post, May 13, 1928


The tomb they were to visit was, they were told, from the pre-mummy era, and for the last four or five thousand years, had been filled in by the mud of the Nile. Seton recalled that "we went down some roughly hewn rock steps--about 30 of them--and there, lying on a stone slab and uncovered was the remains of a skeleton--water and mud had removed most. You could see the skull quite clearly and the leg bones but few ribs were left although the spine was almost intact." Their guide told them that these were remains of a girl of high status, although her name and age were long since erased by history.

Sir Alexander felt mournful as he gazed down at these ancient, anonymous bones, which were all that remained of this long-forgotten fellow human being. Perhaps, he thought, one day far in the future his bones may be gazed upon wonderingly by some idle tourist. He muttered a quick prayer and thankfully went back up into the world of the living. His wife, however, was oddly entranced by the skeleton. She insisted on slipping back into the tomb alone for one last look.

On the way back to their hotel, it was suggested that they stop at the Pyramid's souvenir stand, but to Sir Alexander's surprise, Zeyla declined. That night, she told him that she had already acquired one very special memento of their visit--one not to be found in any mere store. She had taken a small bone from the skeleton they had visited!

Sir Alexander was unimpressed with his wife's prize. He thought the bone "looked like a digestive biscuit."

The Setons continued their holiday, and some weeks later returned to their home in Edinburgh. Sir Alexander had forgotten all about their unconventional souvenir until Zeyla proudly brought it out to show to friends. They put the "somewhat grotesque relic" into a small case, which they left on a table in the drawing room.

As their guests were leaving, they all heard "the most almighty crash," and a large piece of the roof hit the ground about two feet from them. It could easily have killed one of them.

The superstitious Sir Alexander had a very bad feeling about this.

A few nights later, after the Setons had retired to bed, their young daughter Egidia's nanny, Janet Clarke, came to them in great alarm. She said she had heard someone moving around in the drawing room. Seton went to investigate, but found nothing. He told Miss Clarke that it had only been her imagination. Later that night, Seton thought he heard a crash, but chose to ignore it. In the morning, it was discovered that the table holding the bone was on its side, with the little case holding the relic lying on the floor.

A few weeks later, the Setons began hearing loud footsteps...in areas of the house they knew were unoccupied. Over the next few nights, their sleep was disturbed by loud, inexplicable noises. One morning, a visiting nephew announced that the night before he had seen "a funny dressed person going upstairs." Assuming that they had a burglar casing the house, Seton resolved to sit up all the next night, after making sure all the doors and windows were locked. He saw and heard nothing. Seton was about to go back to bed, when his wife cried to him that she heard someone downstairs. He dashed down the stairs. The drawing room was still securely locked tight, but when he unfastened the door, he was startled to find a scene of complete disorder. "Chairs were upset, books flung about, and there in the middle of the chaos was that damn Bone, looking as harmless and more like a biscuit than ever."

Sir Alexander concluded that they were being visited by a poltergeist. Zeyla consulted a soothsayer, but alas, she "really said practically nothing except that her fee was £1."

Some days passed without incident, and the Setons began to think the weird ordeal was over. Then, the poltergeist--or whatever one cares to call it--started up again with a vengeance. The drawing room became the center of loud bangs and noises that left the family with scarcely a moment's peace. They tried the experiment of moving all the articles in the room that had been thrown around--including the table holding That Damn Bone--down to Sir Alexander's sitting room. After a week had passed, Seton tired of the cluttered condition of his room, and announced that he would be moving everything back on the following day. "That night, however, something nearly did the job for me." All the furniture in the sitting room had been thrown about and, as usual, the bone was left lying on the floor.

It finally began to occur to the Setons that there was something very unusual about that bone.

Sir Alexander announced that he was burning the damned--in every sense of the word--object. However, this met with such a "storm of abuse" from Zeyla that he simply threw up his hands in exasperation and went out for a drink. After getting "a little tight," he went home with the stern resolve to destroy the bone.

He learned that during his absence, his nemesis had been one busy little bone. The damage was even worse than usual. Not only had all the furniture in the drawing room been hurled around, the table holding the bone was severely cracked.

Sir Alexander was feeling a bit cracked, too, especially when the newspapers somehow got hold of the story. He found himself pestered by reporters eager for him to make some statement on the matter, but he refused. He recalled that the press made his life "hell on earth," but surely the bone was doing an even better job in that department.

A few weeks later, Miss Clarke, "scared out of her life," told the Setons a most disturbing story. She had heard the usual "noises, etc." coming from the drawing room, but this time they were followed by "a terrific crash" and the sound of breaking glass. She had been too frightened to investigate. When Sir Alexander entered the room, he found the room untouched...except for the table holding the bone. The table was smashed to bits. The glass case which had held the bone was shattered into fragments. The bone itself was broken into about five pieces.

Well, thought Sir Alexander. He certainly had something for the reporters now! He allowed in a cameraman from the "Daily Mail" to record the destruction. ("You should have seen the story the next day!") He gave the bone to one of the reporters who covered the story, but the journalist soon returned it. He had become seriously ill. Zeyla, to her husband's "disgust and dismay," had gotten a doctor friend to repair the bone as best he could (he informed her that it was a sacrum, the bone at the base of the spine.) She then insisted on placing it on a new table in the drawing room. Zeyla seemed to have an almost maternal fondness for the infernal thing.

The climax to this series of uncanny events took place on Boxing Day, 1936. The Setons had guests over for dinner. After a fine meal and some cocktails, everyone was in a jovial holiday mood. Conversation turned to the topic of the bone. As they chatted about Zeyla's pet sacrum, the whole table--bone and all--was lifted by invisible hands and flung on to the opposite wall. "The maid fainted as did Zeyla's rather hysterical cousin Gert!"

The party was most definitely over.

After this incident, the American papers began carrying the story. To Sir Alexander's disgust, "they went to town with it, the whole story being magnified and I found myself again the leading figure in a story which I had begun to hate." Spiritualists held meetings on the topic which drew hundreds of people. ("I only wish now I had had a good agent--I could have made a fortune out of it!") Seton also received a letter from Howard Carter, the man who has gone down in archaeological history as the discoverer of King Tutankhamen's tomb. Carter asked him to keep the details of his letter private, but "he assured me that things quite inexplicable like this could happen, indeed had happened and will go on happening."

Sir Alexander was not Catholic, but he had great respect for an uncle of his who was a priest. One day while his wife's back was turned, he had his uncle come and perform an exorcism at his house. Then Seton burned the bone into ashes.

After this, the Seton home was never troubled again. By the bone, at least. Zeyla Seton never forgave her husband for destroying her precious bone. Their marriage, already on shaky ground, irretrievably foundered.  (This comes as no surprise, considering that Zeyla's true love seems to have been a fragment of haunted spinal column.)

Seton had no answer for the eerie happenings, other than that the bone somehow released "some strange power." If, as many people believed, the bone carried a curse, Seton wrote that it did not end with the bone's destruction. "From 1936 onwards trouble, sometimes grave, seemed to be always around the corner."

In later years, both Egidia Seton and Janet Clarke independently verified that the strange phenomena described by Sir Alexander did indeed take place. Sir Alexander and his wife ended their increasingly unhappy marriage in 1939. They both remarried, but neither found happiness in their new unions. Both continued to suffer from ill-health, financial difficulties, and depression. To the end of his days, the baronet was convinced the evil spell cast upon his entire family had never lifted.

After all, exorcism or no, there was still one venerable Egyptian lady who will forever be missing part of her spine...

Friday, April 21, 2017

Weekend Link Dump



Strange Company HQ's Tip of the Week:  You can have pots of herbs growing on your back porch, or you can have cats growing on your back porch.



Not both.


What the hell are the coffins of Arthur's Seat?

What the hell is the music of the meteors?

Who the hell was "John Doe No. 24?"

Where the hell is Nessie?

Where the hell are the sheep of Central Park?

Watch out for those plague-bearing phantoms!

This is what was in Lincoln's pockets the night he was assassinated.

If you've been longing to know what it's like to have a surgeon take a chainsaw to your spine, this is your lucky week.

The real "Island of the Blue Dolphins."  Loved that book when I was a kid.

The wreck of the "Albion."

The death of an actress and the "brilliant" Chang.

In search of Leonardo da Vinci's DNA.

Now, here's a guy who knows how to use his time productively.

A cemetery for distinguished animal war heroes.

Mary Todd Lincoln and the German castle ghost.

The Chin Girls of Burma.

An elderly woman has died and taken the 19th century with her.

The rough lives of French chimney sweeps.

The icescapes of Captain Ross.

Mrs. Stone meets a headless ghost.

Madam Marie of Asbury Park.

18th century paper manufacturing.

A slightly contrarian view of Zelda Fitzgerald.

This week's mandatory "let's rewrite history" link.

A wild man in Bohemia.

The Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring.

The golden age of Norfolk smuggling.

The case of the immured nun...who wasn't.

A New York menagerie, 1906.

A medieval woman goes from heiress to wife to abbess.

How to be gulled at Hull.

J.D. Salinger and the unemployed actor.

Testing the first guillotine.

The smallest castle in England.

The man with gin on the brain.

The 1871 "Car-Hook Tragedy."

Neil Armstrong's Men in Black.

An influential French midwife.

The untapped potential of Google Books.

The discovery of five "lost" Archbishops.

The unsolved murder of a nun.

The street cries of Victorian Paris.

The life of an early modern woman.

Chinese dragons on land and sea.

A catalog of 18th century London prostitutes.

Edward Gorey was a first-rate hoarder.

A piano that held buried treasure.

Behind the scenes at the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

An East India Company official's secret family.

The thief saved by Saint Nicholas.

The Two Maidens Gentlemen of Pompeii.

Horrible murders!  Attempted suicides!  Frightful execution!

And there it is for this week.  Happy reading, gang, and I'll see you on Monday.  We'll be looking at a souvenir hunt that ended very very badly.  In the meantime, here's some Nilsson:

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day




File this one under "Uncategorizable Odd." The "St. Louis Post-Dispatch," May 7, 1908:
This is the latest from Alton, home of the nature fake and of the freakish and unusual. The furniture in the locked home of H.B. Sparks, a wealthy resident, was disarranged during a heavy storm, and the only explanation possible, neighbors say, is that "spirits were at work."

Mr. Sparks and his family discredit the spirit theory, but they are unable to offer any other.

While the family slept during the thunderstorm Monday night the pictures in the parlor were turned to the wall, the piano was set in the middle of the floor, chairs were overturned, a marble statuette was faced about and the bookcases were emptied of their contents.

Every window and outside door was securely locked when examination was made Tuesday morning, according to members of the family.

Right in the middle of the parlor floor was a copy of Shakespeare's "Tempest," open at the first scene of the fourth act, where this significant quotation occurs: 
"Our revels now are ended. These, our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits
And are melted into thin air, like
The baseless fabric of the vision."

I like a poltergeist who appreciates literature.

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Murder in Manchester


Illustrated Police News, 1880


One of the unexpected lessons learned from studying true-crime is that it can be unnervingly easy to get away with murder. If the killer is prudent enough not to commit the deed before a crowd of eyewitnesses and neglects to leave a business card behind, it's often difficult to trace the perpetrator. Even more importantly, if investigators are unable to find a strong motive anyone might have for seeing the victim dead, it usually requires some amazing stroke of blind luck to arrest a suspect, never mind secure a conviction. One perfect example of this dilemma is an undeservedly obscure mystery from 1880 England.

Richard and Mary Ann Greenwood of Harpurhey, Manchester, were well-to-do people in their seventies. Mr. Greenwood was somewhat deaf, but otherwise in decent health for his age. Mrs. Greenwood, on the other hand, was a semi-invalid who spent most of her time in her bedroom. The housekeeping and general management of the household was left to the Greenwoods' servant of nearly one year, 18-year-old Sarah Jane Roberts.

Fortunately for the Greenwoods, Sarah was a gem of an employee. She was pretty, intelligent, tidy, hard-working, and honest. Plus, she had a sunny and easygoing temperament that brightened the home considerably. She took excellent care of both the home and Mrs. Greenwood, and the elderly couple in turn thought of her more as a friend and companion than a mere servant. Naturally, such an attractive and estimable young woman had her share of male admirers, but she did nothing to encourage them. So far as her family and friends could tell, she never had any particular man in her life. Sarah was largely uninterested in social gaiety of any sort, being a somewhat reserved person who "kept herself to herself." In short, Sarah Jane Roberts seemed to be the most ideally normal young person in Manchester.

This is what makes her death so very, very weird.

Our story opens on January 7, 1880. The day was passing in an utterly normal fashion in the Greenwood household. Around noon William Cooper, a friend and former business partner of Mr. Greenwood's, came by on a casual social call. As Sarah was letting him in, he brought her attention to an envelope lying on the floor. It bore no stamp, and had apparently been merely pushed under the door or through the mail slot. He did not see the address on the envelope. When Sarah picked it up, she said, "It's for Mr. Greenwood."

When Greenwood opened the letter, he found that it read:

Mr. Greenwood, I want to take that land near the coal yard behind the druggist's shop. Queen's road. I will pay either monthly, quarterly, or yearly, and will pay in advance, and I will meet you to-night from five to six o'clock at the Three Tuns, corner of Churnet Street, and will tell you all particulars, I don't know your address or would have posted it.

Yours, etc.,
W. Wilson, Oldham Road
The letter referred to a parcel of land Greenwood owned. Greenwood had no interest in selling the property, and was inclined to just ignore the note. His wife, however, urged him to at least meet with the man and see what he had to say. He reluctantly agreed.

When Greenwood arrived at the Three Tuns, an inn about one mile from his home, he was irked to find that no one had been around asking for him. For that matter, no one there had ever heard of any "W. Wilson." After fruitlessly waiting around for about fifteen minutes, Greenwood concluded that he had been the victim of a particularly childish practical joke, and at about ten to seven, set out on the walk home.

As he approached his house, he was startled to see a small crowd gathered around it. Among the people present were two policemen. Greenwood soon learned that during his brief absence, something inexplicably terrible had happened.

At about 5:30--soon after Greenwood had left for his wild-goose chase--the milkman, James Partington, came by the house. Sarah took in the delivery, in her usual cheerful spirits. The milkman saw no one else on the road. Twenty minutes later, Mrs. Greenwood got out of bed, with Sarah helping her dress. Then the girl went to the kitchen to wash dishes, leaving her mistress sitting by the fireplace. A few minutes later, Mrs. Greenwood heard a knock at the door. She heard the door open, and quiet footsteps going from the lobby to the kitchen. She had the impression that she heard the steps of two people. All was quiet for a few minutes. And then Mrs. Greenwood heard a woman let out a loud scream of sudden terror. The old lady was startled and panic-stricken, but she overcame her fears enough to go out on the landing. "Jane, what is the matter?" she called out. The only answer she received was another scream, much weaker than the first. Then...complete silence.

Mrs. Greenwood was trembling so badly she was momentarily paralyzed. She was too terrified to go down to that kitchen. After a moment, she was able to bring herself to creep down the stairs and outside the front door, where she began yelling for help.

A neighbor, Mrs. Eliza Cadman, had also heard the screams. She came to see what was wrong. The two women worked up the courage to go into the kitchen, where they found Sarah's blood-soaked figure lying on the floor. Someone had smashed her head in. The girl remained unconscious until she died a few moments later. Other than her head wounds, there were no other injuries on the body, and the kitchen was in its normal order.

Illustrated Police News


It seemed obvious that the murderer was the mysterious "W. Wilson" who had written to Mr. Greenwood. The presumption was that the killer aimed to lure the man of the house out of the way long enough for to carry out his attack. This would also indicate that Sarah had been the target of a carefully pre-planned murder. Someone had wanted this well-respected, well-liked young woman dead. But who?

The authorities felt the most likely solution to the murder was that Sarah had had a secret lover who, for whatever reason, decided to get her out of his life for good. However, no evidence was ever found suggesting the dead girl had a clandestine love life. It was anyone's guess whether or not Sarah had known her killer.

Could the murder have been a burglary-gone-wrong? It was proposed that perhaps Sarah had become acquainted with a man who, unbeknownst to her, was a thief. When he came by the house and proposed they rob the place, she instead threatened to turn him in. To shut her up, he killed her. A very tidy theory but one that, again, had nothing to back it up.

This proved to be one of the most clue-free of murders. Police had no murder weapon, no eyewitnesses, no suspects, no motive, no anything at all to suggest why someone would have wanted to beat Sarah Jane Roberts to death. They had no idea where the murderer came from, or where he/she went after committing the deed.

This utter lack of any hard facts inevitably led to a crop of increasingly lurid rumors taking their place in the public imagination. It was proposed that Sarah (who, incidentally, had been a virgin when she died,) was Mr. Greenwood's mistress, and the feeble, usually-bedridden Mrs. Greenwood had killed the girl out of jealousy. Perhaps, muttered vox populi, Greenwood's friend Mr. Cooper was the killer. Maybe he had written the letter luring Greenwood away from home? When it emerged that James Partington the milkman had been among Sarah's admirers--he admitted stealing a kiss from her on the past Christmas Eve--that was enough to bring him under public suspicion. (Fortunately for Partington, it was proven that at the time of the murder, he was half-a-mile away, still engaged on his rounds.)

The inquest was of no help whatsoever. When Mr. Greenwood testified, he took the opportunity to furiously denounce the vile rumors about his relationship with the dead girl. Both he and his wife, he explained, had been very fond of Sarah, but there was never anything more to it than that. The doctor who performed the autopsy stated the obvious--that Sarah died as the result of a number of violent blows to the head made with a heavy blunt instrument--probably, he thought, a hammer. Nothing else of any importance was presented. The coroner's jury delivered the only possible verdict, "wilful murder, by some person or persons unknown."

No less than five thousand copies of the "W. Wilson" letter were circulated by the authorities, but no one came forward to identify the writer. Various seedy characters--the "usual murder suspects" were investigated by police, but not one of them was found to have any plausible connection to the case. The search for Sarah's killer soon came to an utterly fruitless end.

There was one tragic footnote to this case. Mrs. Greenwood never recovered from the shock of her servant's brutal murder under her own roof. She died not long afterwards. Mr. Greenwood quitted Harpurhey for good and went to live with friends. The mystery undoubtedly haunted him for the rest of his days.

But did it haunt Sarah's phantom-like killer?

[Note: True-crime buffs will have noticed the similarities between the Roberts case and the famous 1931 riddle of William Herbert Wallace and the elusive "Qualtrough."]

Friday, April 14, 2017

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the International Cats of Easter!







Where the hell is Caligula's party boat?

Where the hell is Jesus' DNA?

Why the hell is the Pentagon a pentagon?

Why the hell were these WWII dog tags buried?

Why the hell do our shoelaces untie?

Who the hell is the man honored at Sutton Hoo?

What the hell is beneath the Mariana Trench?

That eternal question:  What the hell is the Voynich Manuscript?

Watch out for those scareships!

A murder and the ghouls.

The sinister mystery of British Columbia's Highway 16.

That ever-popular topic of female pirates.

A plea on behalf of Latvia's homeless cats.

A medieval Easter egg hunt.

How Georgians celebrated Easter.

The "oldest living clown."

A look at Breton folklore.

The hunt for the scent of old books.

Nessie: the cryptid without a country.

You know, scientists spend a lot of time researching the obvious.

Oh, just another duel.  With blunderbusses.  While riding in balloons.

The cats of the British Museum.

 A 17th century "abandoned villain."

Georgian post offices.

If everyone on earth dies in a new Ice Age, blame Harvard.

The "little people" of Alaska.

A 19th century opera star.

Civilization:  It's all about the caffeine and the beer.

A portrait of three princesses that's an ad for smallpox vaccination.

It's smallpox vaccination week around here.

The talented women of a medieval harem.

An 18th century family's very unlucky Friday the 13th.

18th century New Orleans sees a very grisly execution.

An interview with a descendant of James Garfield.

An artistic "one-hit wonder."

Stories of the footbound.

Witches and the wandering uterus.

A Palm Sunday in Stepney.

Indonesian Ice Age art.

Victorian Easter bonnets.

How the English saw 17th century Japan.

Tales from an 18th century almshouse.

Ghost pets.

A princess and her ill-fated love affair.

The Color Doctor.

The exorcist house of King's Lynn.

The sounds of ghosts.

"Rational incoherence" and murder.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  After a night of drinking, here's what not to do with your glass.

Einstein and the CIA psychics.

The history of the Fifth Avenue Easter Parade.

The link between modern-day pansies and Jane Austen.

Some obsolete Easter traditions.  I'd like to bring back the Sun Dance.

Article addressing one of my pet peeves: how technology is replacing our ability to think.

The latest on the Roanoke mystery.

Douglas the Confederate Camel.

The life of Catherine de Valois.

A real wild child.

A court case involving the death of a 19th century actress.

A mysterious grave in a medieval churchyard.

The fine art of public urination in Victorian Paris.

The case of the North Pond Hermit.

British troops in WWI Yemen.

Lincoln's death mask and a haunted library.

A look at one of my favorite historical figures, Ulysses S. Grant.

One of Lafayette's love affairs.

How to garden like a medieval monk.

This week in Russian Weird:  Siberia, proud home of the Exploding Pingo Detector.

That wraps things up for this week.  See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at a young woman's brutal--and unusually mysterious--murder.  In the meantime, here's something familiar to anyone who's ever seen "Masterpiece Theater":




Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day



The latest in the "Boston Post's" "Famous Cats of New England" is the exemplary Tabby:
"A good and faithful cat." That's the title to distinction claimed for Tabby, the 13-year-old tiger cat of Mrs. William Horne, 6 Elton street, Dorchester. A 24-pound monster of the best type of tiger cat Tabby has, according to Miss May Horne, been a perfectly behaved cat throughout his dozen years of life.

"Good and kind, never scratched in all those years," was Miss Horne's eulogy of her handsome pet. And Tabby sat on a little table and looked up at her young mistress with conscious virtue written all over him as she spoke. Sometimes his great gold eyes winked a bit or his ears wiggled or a whisker twitched as if he would throw in a word of two in cat language.

"Never a single thing has he stolen," went on Miss Horne. "He just goes and sits in front of the ice box when he wants to be fed. If no one is about he rattles the knob until we hear it. When he wants to go out he scratches at the front or back door. He has never ran or stayed away from home in all his life. He's at the door every single night to meet my father and he rolls over and over in front of him to express his joy that he's come home."

Tabby's dislike of water is interesting. Getting thirsty he will sit before the faucet and cry, but when he is offered water he will not touch it but continue to cry until milk is brought. Whistling is as offensive to his ears as music is to the ears of the average dog. He lifts his head and yowls whenever the butcher or the baker enter the house whistling.

Only cooked food appeals to Tabby's pampered appetite and of meats only lamb and kidney. The diet has evidently agreed with him for he is a well preserved, fine looking cat, apparently in the prime of life with many years ahead with which to make glad the family where he lives.
~December 31, 1920
Sadly, reading this tribute to his many virtues went to Tabby's head. He subsequently murdered his entire family in their sleep, robbed every store in town of their tuna supplies, and went on a multi-state crime spree that is still famous in New England history as "The Great Tabby Terror."

I kid, I kid.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Fall of the Louse of Breckinridge; A Cautionary Tale



In 1893, fifty-seven year old Kentuckian William Campbell Preston Breckinridge was poised to become a major leader in the Democrat party--possibly even a President of the United States. The resume and pedigree of this ex-Confederate Colonel were both impressive: He was a five-term Congressman, his cousin John C. Breckinridge had been Vice-President under James Buchanan, and his family tree was bursting with Attorney Generals, Senators, and Governors. He had the fame, the family, and the patronage to go to the very pinnacle of power.

And it all came crashing down on him, simply because in addition to all these attributes, he was an unmitigated skunk.

His downfall began, appropriately enough, on April Fools Day, 1884, when the Congressman boarded a train bound for his home in Lexington. During the journey, he made the acquaintance of a seventeen-year old Wesleyan College student named Madeline Pollard. Pollard was plain, an orphan, and so quiet and retiring she was habitually described as "mouse-like."  She was a vulnerable woman who badly needed supportive friends.

What she got was William Breckinridge.



During the train ride, the two became so friendly that three months later, Pollard felt sufficiently emboldened to write Breckinridge asking for some business advice. The Congressman took time out of his busy schedule to visit her in person at Wesleyan to discuss the issue. This led to him asking the girl to meet him at a certain private location in Lexington. Two days later, after having dinner with his wife, he rendezvoused with Pollard and persuaded her to go to bed with him.

At Breckinridge's urging, Pollard transferred to Lexington's Sayre Institute. The Congressman paid for her board and tuition, and the two kept up their clandestine affair. In 1884, Pollard became pregnant to a child placed in a foundling home. In 1888, she again gave birth, to a child who was also given away.  (Both children died in infancy.)  Pollard bore her uncomfortable position as a married man's secret mistress without complaint. She loved him, and convinced herself that her feelings were returned. "His slightest wish was law to me," she later recalled. She even agreed to relinquish her children because Breckinridge feared they would be traced to him. "A woman can't do more than that," Pollard said flatly.

In 1887, Breckinridge moved Pollard to Washington D.C., where she worked in the Department of Agriculture and the Census Bureau.  She became a minor figure in the capital's social scene. After his wife died in 1892, Breckinridge began promising Pollard that they would marry...someday. After she became pregnant a third time, he swore to her that this child would be kept, and acknowledged as his. The two set a wedding date for May 31, 1893.

On April 29, 1893, Breckinridge married his cousin Louise Wing.

Pollard did not learn of her soi-disant fiance's perfidy until several weeks later. Soon afterward, she suffered a miscarriage, and, like Mary Stuart after the murder of Rizzio, began to study revenge. She slapped her ex-lover with a breach-of-promise suit where she demanded $50,000.



The trial opened on March 8, 1894. The proceedings lasted for a scandal-packed month, with newspapers across the country eagerly reporting every sordid, salacious detail. Pollard--dressed all in black and accompanied by a nun--made a very sympathetic witness, all the more so when Breckinridge's attorneys defamed her as an experienced "prostitute" who deliberately lured him into a liaison. The defense went for the classic "nuts and sluts" argument, painting Pollard and a half-mad strumpet who had threatened him with ruin, or even death. Breckinridge denied all knowledge or paternity of her children. This tactic spectacularly backfired on him. What onlookers saw was a young woman who had been gravely wronged, and was now being further victimized when she sought some measure of justice. The jury quickly ruled in Pollard's favor, awarding her $15,000.





With exquisitely bad timing, Breckinridge had to run for re-election soon after the trial ended. He gritted his teeth and began campaigning in the face of newspaper editorials calling him everything from a rapist to a "wild beast in search of prey." Worse still for him, what seemed to be every woman in Kentucky was screaming for his head. He proved to be one of the best things that ever happened to the emerging suffrage movement. As one journalist put it, "Women who never took the slightest interest in politics in their lives have become active politicians." Women organized protest rallies against Breckinridge. His backers were boycotted. Families refused to allow their daughters to be courted by his supporters. Many old friends shunned him. The intensity of feeling aroused by the election was compared to the Civil War.

Amazingly, his previous enormous popularity, coupled with his new groveling "sackcloth and ashes" act, nearly carried the day for him. He lost, but by only 255 votes. However, his political career was over for good, with the women of his state being given all the credit for his stunning defeat. As historian Hambleton Tapp wrote, "The fall of Breckinridge was like that of an archangel."

Breckinridge found little happiness in retirement. His wife had a mental breakdown which at times erupted into violent mania, and he never completely lived down the disgrace of the Pollard affair. He quietly returned to his law practice, and bought the Lexington "Morning Herald," where his son Desha served as editor for many years. His daughter Sophonisba proved to be the most distinguished member of this scandal-tarred family. She became the first female in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D., as well as the first woman to be admitted to the Kentucky bar. Breckinridge died of complications from a stroke in November 1904. After his death, it was reported that due to his finances having reached "a very low ebb," he never paid a cent of the settlement Pollard had won against him.

As for Madeline Pollard, the year after the trial ended, it was reported that she was preparing to make a round-the-world journey as "the companion of a charitable woman." In 1897, the newspapers stated that she was living in London, where she planned a literary career. She subsequently disappeared from public view.

After her victory over Breckinridge, a supporter told her that she was "not ruined, but [only] hindered."  From what little we know of her, such proved to be the case.   Pollard continued her interest in literature and art, and studied several languages.  In her existing documentation, she described herself as a "student and writer."  She traveled extensively throughout Europe, and eventually settled in England, where she died in 1945.  Her will left her small estate to her "beloved friend" Violet Hassard, who had lived and traveled with Pollard since at least 1900.

So perhaps in the end the "woman scorned" found true love.