"...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

Friday, May 26, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Weekend Link Dump is sponsored by the Weekend Merry Makers!

What the hell was the Mimick Dog?

What the hell was the birthplace of mankind?

Who the hell invented potato chips?

Who the hell was Leonardo da Vinci's mother?  Now we know?

How the hell did the Hindenburg catch fire?

Watch out for the Rolling Shot Ghost!

Watch out for those blackmail pills!

Watch out for those rogue cows!

Some facts about the Titanic.

The Frome Hoard: real-life buried treasure.

The Hawkhurst smuggling gang.

Russia's last coronation.

The Great Plains Indians and President Monroe.

A look at Mozart's son.  Who probably deserves more than to be called "Mozart's son."

The Wonder Women of WWI.

The "Monkey Girl."

The triumph of Germanicus.

The "ecstasy of error."

The 18th century Instagram filter.

A clinic for "exotic pets."

Georgian-era watering places.

Legends of a drowned Welsh town.

The art of children's games.

Fun fact:  Martin Luther's wife brewed excellent beer.

The Nessie of Sweden.

Some very well-dressed wells.

What four skulls tell us about urban life.

Was Amelia Dyer mad or bad?  (My take:  Embrace the power of "and.")

The rise of space archaeology.

In related news, Jordan is searching for an ancient underwater city.

Cicadas are acting weird.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  What not to do when you're in a frolicksome mood.

A 19th century heroine of the seas.

A selection of medieval book curses.

The Phantom Time Hypothesis, arguably the looniest of historical theories.

Victorian indecency at the beach.

Tabby's Star is getting weird again.

A Portuguese university has the preserved head of a serial killer.  For some reason, I thought you needed to know that.

The UK's most dangerous autopsy.

Did this man prove ESP is real?

That time it rained fish in Oroville.

The Devil gets musical.

The England of John Constable.

Horace Walpole and Queen Charlotte.

A boxed fairy.

And that's a wrap! See you on Monday, when we'll look at a couple's mysterious disappearance. In the meantime, here's a trumpet concerto. Because I love trumpet concertos.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

The latest installment of the "Boston Post's" "Famous Cats of New England" introduces a cat blessed with beauty, brains, and brawn:
Twenty-two pounds of spotlessly white catdom does not dwell in every New England town. That's why Laconia, N.H., wants Dick's name written high on the lists of New England's famous cats. "The Cat Beautiful" is the title held by this monster angora that is the beloved property of Mrs. E.S. Cave.

With his head not a bit turned by all the praise and attention that is showered upon him by townspeople and visitors, Dick is the most democratic cat in that staid New England town. He shakes hands upon request with all comers and will sit up and beg even for a piece of candy in the hand of a child passing by.

For eight years Dick has been the joy of his mistress' heart and has kept the home bounds clear of all invading dogs and cats. They have learned to have a wholesome respect for the fluffy white form that confronts them suddenly as soon as they set foot on the boundaries of the Cave domain. They do not stay to indulge in argument--not those that have ever met Dick before.
~January 3, 1921

Monday, May 22, 2017

When America Had an Emperor

You don’t see too many self-made Emperors walking the streets. Joshua Norton did his best to correct the deficit.

Norton was born in London, possibly on February 4, 1817. In 1820, his family emigrated to South Africa. In 1849, the young man joined the hordes hoping to strike it rich in California’s Gold Rush. However, he sought to find fortune not in mining, but in business. He grandly set up shop in San Francisco as “Joshua Abraham Norton, international merchant.”

His various business and real estate speculations soon paid off. It has been claimed that by 1852, he was worth the modern equivalent of about five million dollars. However, in that same year, his luck suddenly ran out. China, California’s main rice supplier, cut off exports due to a famine. As a result, the price of the grain immediately skyrocketed. Norton bought a rice shipment from Peru sitting in the San Francisco harbor for $25,000, figuring to corner the market. The day after he signed the contract, ships full of Peruvian rice of a far higher quality began to arrive on the scene. The price of rice crashed even more dramatically than it had risen, leaving Norton suddenly facing economic disaster. He tried to get out the contract, but the ship’s owners sued him, kicking off over two years of costly litigation that ended with a verdict against him.

By that point, the boom created by the gold fever had ended, leaving San Francisco—and Norton—in ruin. Some of his properties were foreclosed; others were sold at a loss. A client accused him of embezzlement. In 1856, he filed for bankruptcy, and sank into what appeared to be a permanent obscurity.

In 1859, Norton crafted what has to rank as one of the most original reinventions in American history. On September 17, the “San Francisco Bulletin” carried a proclamation that had been submitted the previous day:

“At the preemptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of These United States, and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall of this city, on the 1st day of February next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity.

Norton I, Emperor of the United States”

On October 12, the “Bulletin” published a second Ukase from their new ruler:

“It is represented to us that the universal suffrage, as now existing throughout the Union, is abused; that fraud and corruption prevent a fair and proper expression of the public voice; that open violation of the laws are constantly occurring, caused by mobs, parties, factions, and undue influence of political sects; that the citizen has not that protection of person and property which he is entitled to by paying his pro rata of the expense of government—in consequence of which, We do hereby abolish congress, and it is therefore abolished; and We order and desire the representatives of all parties interested to appear at the Musical Hall of this city on the first of February next, and then and there take the most effective steps to remedy the evil complained of.”

He followed up by abolishing the state Supreme Court and firing the governor of Virginia, replacing him with Vice President Breckinridge.

By July 1860, the Emperor really got to work. He announced the Republic of the United States was being dissolved in favor of an “Absolute Monarchy.” In 1869, both the Republican and Democrat parties got the heave-ho as well.

The Emperor picked the perfect place to found his dynasty. San Franciscans have always cherished their crackpots, and they happily submitted to his rule. At opening night at the theaters, the best seat in the house was always reserved for Emperor Norton, with applause and fanfares from the orchestra to greet him. Politicians courted his favor. Police officers saluted him on the street. The local papers milked his growing legend for everything it was worth. A “Daily Morning Call” reporter named Samuel Langhorne Clemens often chronicled the Emperor’s reign. Local businesses invoked his name and alleged patronage as a bonanza of free publicity. In short, Emperor Norton became a hotly-exploited cottage industry for the city.

The Emperor in military dress

Everyone profited from the Emperor except the Emperor himself. However grand his proclamations or glorious his fame may have been, the former Joshua Norton remained a threadbare charity case. Although local restaurants and stores happily used his name for commercial purposes, they seldom bothered to show him any financial gratitude.

Every day, he would awaken in his 50 cent a night boarding house, wear one of the various second-hand uniforms he had acquired, and tour his kingdom. He appeared, in the words of biographer William Drury, “a kind, affable man,” who “spoke rationally and intelligently about any subject, except about himself or his empire.”

He was a benevolent and enlightened ruler. One of his closest companions was a Chinese man named Ah How, who was dubbed the Emperor’s “Grand Chamberlain.” Norton hated the violent prejudice shown against the Chinese, proclaiming, “We are all God’s children.” He toured schools and attended a different church every Sunday. (He explained, “I think it is my duty to encourage religion and morality by showing myself at church and to avoid jealousy I attend them all in turn.”) He patronized libraries, theaters, debating societies, lectures. He was an avid reader and an excellent chess player. He issued decrees calling for a bridge connecting San Francisco to Oakland, and a tunnel under San Francisco Bay--years before anyone else thought to actually build those structures. (To this day, the descendants of Norton's loyal subjects are campaigning to have the bridge named after the visionary Emperor.)

During the Civil War, many preachers took to airing their political views in the pulpit. The Emperor disapproved of “political preaching,” which he saw as a danger to the separation of Church and State. He issued a decree forbidding the practice.

Leland Stanford, then President of the Central Pacific Railroad, gave Norton a free pass which he used to attend sessions of the state legislature (he seldom approved of the proceedings,) and review military troops.

In the 1860s, Norton encountered a man who had known him back in the day in South Africa, and they met for a generally sane reunion. When the man asked the Emperor about his career change, he confided that he was not really a Norton—he was a Bourbon; a member of the French royal family given to the Nortons for protection after the Revolution.

The friend informed the Emperor that he was nuts. Norton replied calmly that a great many others agreed.

Over the years, the Emperor became San Francisco’s favorite tourist attraction. In 1876, Dom Pedro II, Brazil’s Emperor, visited the city. One of his first requests was for an Emperor-to-Emperor summit meeting.

Emperor Norton took to issuing “Imperial Treasury Bond Certificates.” He would sign them with a promise that they would be payable at 7% interest by 1880. They became highly popular souvenirs with locals and tourists alike. Local vendors made a fortune selling “Emperor Norton I” merchandise.

On the night of January 8, 1880, the Emperor suddenly collapsed on the sidewalk and died, presumably of a stroke or heart attack.

The next day, the top headline in the “Chronicle” proclaimed, “Le Roi Est Mort.” Funds were quickly raised for an appropriately royal burial at the Masonic Cemetery. The funeral cortege was two miles long. In 1934, when all of San Francisco’s cemeteries were closed, he was given a dignified reburial in Colma’s Woodlawn Memorial Park.

Whether Norton was a pathetic dreamer, a hoaxer, or an unhinged megalomaniac, as a native Californian, I can vouch that my state has had many far worse leaders, and very few who are better.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the cats of the month of May!

How the hell did David Douglas die?

Watch out for those haunted wineries!

Watch out for those ghostly donkeys!

Watch out for those flying dragons!

Watch out for those Victorian Magic Letters!

One woman's experiences during the French Revolution.

In which a man's second wife has to deal with the ghost of his first wife.

America's worst school massacre.  (Full disclosure: I once briefly considered doing a blog post about this story, but almost immediately decided against it, because the murderer was just too sick and creepy for me to stomach reading about him in any detail, let alone writing about him.  Yes, there's a historical incident that was too much for my blog.  Keep that in mind if you're unsure about clicking the link.)

That time it was a big deal to watch someone get out of bed.  Not something you'd want to do at my house, believe me.

18th century Freemason secret signals.

A child-murder from 1905.  With bonus rotten parents.

Some people just can't be trusted to do anything.

A tribute to the oak tree.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  Men, this is what not to do with a candlestick.

For men and women:  This is not what to do with a needle.

A reminder of the joys of Communism.

The Dollar Princess and her stage mother.

That time magic failed to turn a goat into a human boy.

Science analyzes Richard's Lionheart.

More on the so-called "Victorian Tear Bottles."  This is nearly as persistent on the internet as the myth that Poe had an affair with Fanny Osgood.

Some East End toys from 1917.

18th century nude male races might be enough to tempt me to start watching sports.

Bell folklore.

Booze + Candles + Medieval home furnishings= One 13th century woman's unfortunate claim to internet fame.

William Blake's fairies.

Top of the Pops, 1783.

Let's talk space alien bipedal octopus dwarves, shall we?

How Paris got addresses.

Unraveling the mysteries of Inca cords.

Confessing to a skeleton.

Ancient criminal codes regarding torture.

A 19th century voyage to Calcutta.

What if life on other planets is less advanced than we are?  (Less advanced?  Now, there's a frightening thought...)

The varied history of an 1834 New York house.

The "disappearing triangle" of Ireland.

An 18th century French midwife and doctor.

Send lawyers guns and money pineapples guns and wine!

The 17th century really liked drunken monkeys.

Let's talk hearse horses.

Da Vinci's music machine.

It wasn't easy being a medieval royal mother.

The Prince of Pick-Pockets.

This week in Russian Weird presents the world's oldest bracelet.

And that's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at America's first, last, and greatest Emperor.  In the meantime, I recently read a bit about the life of Stephen Foster (his bio makes Poe's look like a non-stop laugh riot,) which reminded me of this charmingly upbeat version of my favorite Foster song:

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

A pleasantly creepy little tale appeared in the "Logansport Press" on June 9, 1960:
Lynn, Ind.-The monster scare has returned to Indiana. A few years ago it was the giant Churubusco turtle which gathered fame throughout the state but eluded capture until it finally was forgotten. Now it's the monster of Craig's Well. This monster, which is described as "an eerie beast with a dome-shaped head, two bulbous eyes and eight flailing tenacles as long as a man's arm," resides in a cistern on Dan Craig's farm, four miles south of here on the Randolph County line.

Dan Craig, 56, said he first spotted the "thing" about a year ago but has kept it secret until now. Eastern Indiana got the first reports of the monster scare last Saturday when Craig succumbed to curiosity and pumped the 12-foot-deep cistern dry. The bottom, covered with years of debris, disclosed the octopus-like monster crawling among the decaying timbers. "But in the gloom," Craig said, "he was hard to see." Craig described the monster's body as  "mushroom colored" and said the tentacles have gray lobster-type claws on the ends. Many of the visitors who have come to his farm in the last few days have asked. "How did it get there?" Craig's theory is someone brought the odd creature back from the tropics when it was small. "When it grew to the dangerous stage," Craig said, "they looked for a place to get rid of it and picked my well."

Craig said he will have a man uncap the well and pen the narrow top so the interior can be entered with safety. But the job can't be done for two weeks. There is a hole near the bottom of the cistern which may be the mouth of a cave and lead to the outside. Craig reported. Exactly where it might go, he doesn't know. "In the meantime," Craig said, "I keep the well covered to protect the wife and four youngsters."

Another newspaper story added the distressing detail that a farmer lowered into the well a fish on a string. He pulled it up a while later, "slashed to ribbons." He fed the mutilated fish to his cat.

Fifteen minutes later, the cat was dead.

The well was eventually drained, but the "monster" had vanished. Interestingly, later that year numerous people made credible reports of seeing a "monster" in Hollow Block Lake, an abandoned clay pit about 30 miles north of Lynn, leading to speculation that Craig's beast had found a new home.

As for the answer to the mystery of what was in Craig's cistern, well, that seems obvious.

Cthulhu, come on down!

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Strange Death of Ludwig Dahl; Or, If the Dead Speak to You, Don't Listen

Ludwig Dahl

The history of spiritualism is littered with cautionary tales of overenthusiastic dabblers who sought enlightenment via the world of ghosts, but instead found themselves delving into dangerous psychic waters that brought them to disaster.

In the example we will be examining today, spirits may even have led to one man's murder.

In the early part of the 20th century, Judge Ludwig Dahl worked as a magistrate in the Norwegian town of Fredrikstad. He also served as mayor of Bergen. In his private life, Dahl followed more unusual interests than law and politics. From around 1915, he and his family became deeply involved in psychic and occult matters. After Dahl's two sons Ludwig and Ragnar died in separate accidents within a few years of each other, this hobby became what could be called an obsession. His daughter, Mrs. Ingeborg Køber, believed she had talents as a medium. She spent many hours in a self-induced trance, where she allegedly "channeled" the spirits of her deceased brothers. (Among the guests at these seances was Arthur Conan Doyle, who called Ingeborg "the most remarkable medium I ever came across.")

Ingeborg Kober

Dahl kept transcripts of these spirit communications, which he never doubted were completely genuine. The belief that he continued to have contact with his sons was the only thing that enabled Dahl to cope with his loss. "The passing of the two boys," he once wrote, "made our lives richer, fuller, than ever before." In short, the spirit world was becoming more important to him than the world of the living.

In 1927, the famed "ghost hunter" Harry Price visited Norway, where he made the acquaintance of the Dahl family. He attended one of their seances, where Ingeborg went into a trance and--so all the Dahls believed--communicated messages from Ludwig Jr. and Ragnar. Price was privately unimpressed. Although he liked the Dahls, and had no doubt that the family sincerely believed they were "talking" to their dead loved ones, he noted that there was no unimpeachable proof that this was truly happening. As evidence of life after death, he considered the experience something of a bust. However, he remained friends with the family and succeeded in finding a publisher for Dahl's transcripts of his spiritualistic researches. They were issued in 1931 with the title "We are Here: Psychic Experiences." The book received international attention, leading many to refer to him as the "father of Scandinavian spiritualism."

In 1933, Dahl's "psychic experiences" suddenly took an ominous turn. A family friend, Astrid Stolt-Nielsen, also fancied herself to be a trance medium. During one of her seances, she gave Dahl a grim message from his son Ragnar: the spirit announced that in August 1934, Dahl would have a fatal accident. The judge's specific reaction to this news was not recorded, suggesting that--as befitting someone who was convinced there is eternal life after death--he took the warning in stride.

On August 8, 1934, Dahl and Ingeborg paid a visit to Hankø Island, a seaside resort a few miles from their town. It happened to be the place where Ludwig Dahl Jr. had drowned fifteen years earlier. While Ingeborg sunbathed on the beach, the judge went out for a swim. He was an excellent swimmer, in very good health for his 69 years, and the water was no more than three feet deep.

This swim proved to be the last thing he ever did on this earth. While he was in the bay, something terrible happened. According to Ingeborg, he suddenly began to sink from the surface. By the time she was able to reach Dahl and pull him from the water, he had drowned.

A tragic and--if you believe in the ghost of Ragnar Dahl--unsurprising accident. Sad, certainly, but entirely normal.

The site of Dahl's death

Well, perhaps not. The inquest into the judge's demise revealed a number of interesting details. After his death, it was discovered that he had serious financial problems. There was a very large insurance policy on his life--which happened to expire one day after his death. There was also testimony from Christian Apenes, Dahl's deputy-mayor. In December 1933, he had attended one of Ingeborg's seances. Apenes said that during this trance session, Ragnar Dahl had, through Ingeborg, delivered the news that his father would die within a year. He would meet his end by drowning in shallow water. The spirit added that as proof of this claim, it would give this same information to another medium. (That is to say, Astrid Stolt-Nielsen.) "Ragnar" instructed that the prediction of Ludwig's untimely end should be written down and placed in a sealed envelope. Apenes dramatically produced this envelope, where it was opened in front of witnesses.

The peculiar circumstances surrounding the judge's death became the focus for an intense public debate over spiritualism. Was this, as psychic researchers insisted, proof of the afterlife? Or did Dahl kill himself under the "hypnotic influence" of the death prophecy? Or were the skeptics right in their suspicion that all this talk of spirit communications was merely a cover for something far darker?

Law enforcement began to cast a very critical eye on the only witness to Ludwig's death...his daughter Ingeborg. The autopsy on Dahl revealed that before he died of drowning, his neck had received a fracture between the fourth and fifth vertebrae. It was also noted that after pulling her father from the water, Ingeborg did not immediately summon medical help. Instead, she and Mrs. Stolt-Nielsen (whom she had supposedly accidentally run into) phoned her mother. It took Mrs. Dahl several hours to arrive at the scene. She was accompanied by Christian Apenes. Doctors were not called until it was too late for them to do anything but certify "death by drowning." Police officers were not notified until later--so much later, that lurid gossip spread that the judge had really been murdered by his family, in order for them to collect that much-needed insurance money. Apenes also benefited from Dahl's death--after the judge drowned, Apenes took over as mayor. The most popular theory was that Apenes had invented the "death by accident" prophecy, and then hypnotized Ingeborg into drowning her father on the beach.

The many questions surrounding Ludwig Dahl's death wound up being aired in Oslo's Central Criminal Court. Ingeborg herself instigated bringing the case to court, as she was anxious to disprove the allegations that her father had killed himself. Instead, she found herself facing a charge of being part of a murder plot involving her mother, Astrid Stolt-Nielsen and Christian Apenes.

Ingeborg's trial (which gained international fame as "The Witch Trial of Oslo,") dragged out for no less than three years. It became a battle of science versus spiritualism. The prosecution presented psychologists who opined learnedly on what they saw as Ingeborg's mental aberrations. The defense countered by quoting from the works of psychic researchers. Ingeborg spoke excitedly of eternal life and the Great Beyond. Her accusers talked of life insurance.

During the trial, it was revealed that Mrs. Dahl, who served as her town's treasurer, had embezzled public funds. The cash apparently went to pay the steep premiums for her husband's insurance policy. Several days after this exposure, she killed herself. She left a note admitting the theft, but vehemently proclaiming her daughter's innocence of murder.

What it all boiled down to was this: Did the judge kill himself so his family would get his insurance money? Was he driven to suicide after hearing a prophecy of his death from the other world? Did his family conspire to murder him? Or was his death mere mischance after all, with the alleged "message" from Ragnar being merely a creepy coincidence?

The jury, faced with this array of unproven, unprovable theories, chose to deliver an acquittal. Ludwig Dahl's death was finally officially ruled to be accidental.

Despite the jury's verdict, many Norwegians still consider Dahl's death to be an unsolved mystery. At least one criminologist even had his suspicions about the death of the judge's sons, wondering if "under the cloak of Spiritualism an extremely cunning criminal was carrying out a series of murders."

We will never know if he could have been right.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Zen Cat, Lord of the Green Onions.

Who the hell was Mary Checkley?

Who the hell was this San Francisco girl?  Now we know!

Why the hell did Agatha Christie disappear?

Where the hell is H.H. Holmes?

How the hell did Dorothy Kilgallen die?

If Napoleon were alive today, he'd be the guy hogging the line at Starbucks.

A story of Japanese reincarnation.

The Devil thinks he's getting a wine bar, winds up with a church instead. Hilarity ensues.

Coconut water, anyone?  With a monster chaser?

Those ever-popular letters from the grave.

A dissertation on American tobacco juice spitting.

Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites.

Dolphin folklore.

A legal case involving a severed finger.

A coachman's mysterious marriage.

A hot air balloon in ancient Greece.  Maybe.

An ancient explorer in the Arctic.  Maybe.

Ancient bodies in trees.  Maybe.

An ancient Chinese in London.  This one seems pretty definite.

More from the "We don't know jack about human history" file.

Victorian ballroom etiquette.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  How not to work in a bobbin factory.

Related:  People find the oddest ways to die.

An execution related to one of my favorite moments in Weird History, the Affair of the Poisons.

The first great Frost Fair.

Let's talk about the booming trade in fake corpses.

A toad and a bearded female saint.

A Derbyshire "Lover's Leap."

A forgotten American patriot.

The animals who served in WWI.

A haunted colliery.

A village of Generals.

All you need to know about medieval dragons.

Two very different births in the Tower of London.

A look at Walpurgis Night.

Thus ends yet another Link Dump.  See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at a spiritualist's mysterious death.  In the meantime, here's some Buddy Holly.