"...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 25, 2017

In Deep Water: The Last Dive of the Lonergans




On Sunday, January 25, 1998, 34-year-old Tom Lonergan and his 29-year-old wife Eileen were part of a group of 26 passengers who set out in the scuba boat "Outer Edge" for a day of snorkeling at St. Crispin's Reef, a popular dive site off Australia's Queensland coast. The two Peace Corps volunteers had been working as teachers in Tuvalu and Fiji, and were giving themselves a holiday before returning to their home in America.

The Lonergans had both trained as military pilots (although Eileen was a geologist by profession,) and excelled in outdoor activities, particularly scuba diving. They appeared to be happily married, and entirely content with their active and productive lives. In short, they seemed unlikely candidates for either bizarre misadventure or deliberate hoax.

At about 2:30 pm, the owner and skipper of the "Outer Edge," Geoffrey Nairn, stopped the boat at the tip of St. Crispin's, and his passengers all happily dove into the still, beautiful waters. The Lonergans, being fearless and expert scuba divers, told another diver on the trip that they would "go off and do their own thing." The couple swam away on their own, becoming lost to view.

About an hour later, the passengers came back onboard, and the boat headed back to Port Douglas. No one bothered to do a head-count, so it went unnoticed that they were returning with two fewer people than when they left. Tom and Eileen Lonergan had vanished. Incredibly, it was not until the following Tuesday, when Nairn found the pair's belongings--including Tom's eyeglasses and wallet--in his boat's lost property bin, that anyone realized that something was amiss with the Lonergans. Nairn called the hostel where the couple had been staying. The manager said the Lonergans weren't there. He had not seen them for several days, and had no idea where they could be. Nairn immediately called the police, and the investigation into this strangest of missing-persons cases was finally underway.

Sixty hours after anyone had last seen the Lonergans, an air and sea search, which eventually covered 8,000 nautical miles, was begun. No trace of the couple could be found. Of course, after that long a period of time, the Lonergans could have been anywhere--no matter what had happened to them.

It was at this point that things really began to get weird. Two buoyancy vests in perfect condition, a fin, a wetsuit hood, and a diving tank were found on a beach about six miles from Cooktown. The vests were marked with the Lonergans' names.

This find only deepened the mystery. Did the couple remove their equipment in order to commit a joint suicide? Could they have been murdered? And in any case, how likely was it that all these items should just happen to wash up on the same remote beach? Were these items planted--by the Lonergans, or someone else?

At the inquest into the couple's disappearance, one witness suggested that the Lonergans had been killed by a pack of tiger sharks. Others disputed this idea, pointing out that the sharks would have eaten them whole, without leaving any of their equipment behind.

An odd detail was provided by Tom Colrain, the operations manager of the "Outer Edge's" company. He stated that on the night before the ill-fated diving expedition, Tom Lonergan phoned him to ask if the diving boat would be visiting Agincourt Reef. Colrain replied that it would.

Lonergan seemed unaccountably dissatisfied by the news. He repeated the question. Several times, to the point where Colrain became highly exasperated. Gail McLean, who worked for the Cairns Visitors Information Center, testified that Lonergan had called her with a similar question. He asked about a charter vessel called "Quicksilver V." Would it be visiting Agincourt Reef?

When McLean replied in the affirmative, Lonergan showed the same peculiar insistence about this seemingly trivial point. Was she sure the boat would sail to Agincourt Reef? He kept pressing her on the matter until, McLean recalled, "I got my back up and said I didn't care what anyone else had told him, it was Agincourt Reef that 'Quicksilver' visited."

Could it be that the Lonergans had a plan to break away from their group and, for whatever reason, secretly board "Quicksilver?" No one could say.

The strangest testimony of all was given by Jeanette Brentnall, the owner of a Port Douglas bookstore. She was certain that the Lonergans came into her shop...two days after the couple disappeared from the "Outer Edge." Brentnall said they bought maps of the area, as well as postcards. She chatted briefly with the couple, who told her they were from Fiji. She recalled that "The man dominated the conversation...his wife looked pretty subdued."

The inquest heard some ominous-sounding testimony about Tom Lonergan's state of mind before his disappearance. Some acquaintances asserted that he had been suffering from depression and anxiety about the future. On August 3, 1997, he wrote in his diary that he wanted to die. On January 9, 1998, Eileen wrote in her diary that her husband was "ready to die...he hope it happens soon." Elsewhere, she wrote, "Our lives are so entwined now and we are hardly individuals. I am still Eileen but I am mostly Eileen and Tom. Where we are now goes beyond dependence, beyond love." Her diary entries indicate that she did not share Tom's longing for death, and feared he might somehow force her to get "caught up" in it.

The attorney for the "Outer Edge"company--facing quite a bit of heat over Nairn's carelessness about the head-counts--pushed the murder-suicide theory hard. Relatives of the Lonergans, who were calling for Nairn to be charged with manslaughter, were outraged at this line of attack, calling it "wild, unsubstantiated speculation." Family members described the couple as too essentially positive in their thinking to actually act on any suicidal thoughts. Eileen's father insisted that "They were happy young people traveling the world."

The coroner obviously agreed with the relatives. He ordered that Nairn should stand trial. In November 1999, the skipper was acquitted. The issue of just what had happened to the Lonergans was so murky that the jury recoiled from making any definitive ruling on the matter. However, the following year Nairn's company was fined $27,000 for failing to keep careful records of the boat's passengers. Nairn was forced to sell the company in order to pay the fine and his several hundred thousand dollars of legal bills.

Over five months after the Lonergans were last seen, a dive slate was found on a beach south of Cooktown. It contained a handwritten message stating that they had been "abandoned," and pleading for help. The note was dated January 26. Investigators believed it was "more than likely" in Tom Lonergan's writing, but they could not be certain.

That proved to be the "last word"--if last word it truly was--from Tom and Eileen Lonergan. To date, their true fate remains eerily uncertain. Was it a murder-suicide? Double suicide? If Jeanette Brentnall's testimony can be believed, did the couple fake their own deaths in order to start new lives for themselves?

Or was it a case of the simplest, most haunting scenario of all? Did a careless boat captain leave the Lonergans stranded in the middle of the ocean, condemning them to die a lonely and frightening death?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Weekend Link Dump



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



Meet Mimi.  She was yet another homeless wanderer who made her way into the Strange Company HQ heart and home.

Friend of this blog John Bellen recently wrote of "unsung" felines: "not the spectacular sort, not the kind of cat who garners attention. She is not a cute and cuddly kitten, nor a diabetic requiring special care. She is just a cat. But she is my cat, and my friend. And that is something to celebrate now and then."

That was Mimi.  She was a low-key, shy, affectionate cat without any quirks, bad habits or outstanding personality traits.  If she had been human, I suppose she would have been a bit of a wallflower, overlooked at parties in favor of flashier, but not worthier girls.   She was a large, long-haired, quite beautiful cat, though.  I'm sorry I don't have any better pictures of her, but during her time with us the only camera we had was an utterly crappy one on a cheap little flip-phone.  I regret that.

Mimi was a "senior" cat when she moved in with us, so we only had her for a few years.  But she was my friend, and I celebrate her.


What the hell happened to Snooperkatz?

What the hell are the Sheela-na-gigs?

Watch out for those Victorian pleasure gardens!

Watch out for those death ships!

Watch out for those exploding pants!

A busy day at Tyburn.

The "Lady Shore," and a "most disagreeable, mutinous set of villains."

Portrait of a doomed royal marriage.  Or, rather, since this is Henry VIII we're talking about, one of his doomed royal marriages.

Oh, just another 1930s American town in the Amazon rainforest.

Oh, just another ghost ship piloted by mannequins.  And, yes, it's Florida.

Some details about cadaver dogs.

On a related note, here's one hell of a rescue dog.

When the French king lived in England.

This week's episode of "Oh, looky, I've found Jack the Ripper!"

That time Stoke-on-Trent was invaded by aliens.

A forgotten storm.

The history of the ampersand.

Early letters of Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales.

Finding Walter, via his 12th century manuscripts.

Someone in Switzerland is imitating the U.S. Congress. 

The story behind The Brownie Comment.

A cat door from the 14th century.

Death on a Victorian canal.

Some odd gravestones.

The race to save historical sounds.

The colorful life of an 18th century comic actor.

A young woman avenged her father's murder...and got away with it.

Oh, good, I'm always ready to talk Necropants.

Murder at a speakeasy.

The Brighton Dipper.

Sorry, kids, there wasn't really any Tulip Fever.

The Devil's fiddles.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  Pregnant women, keep those arms down!  Taking a three-story fall is OK, though.

The mermaid of Connomara.

A forgotten American war hero.

The origin of Zero.

Caring for Victorian preemies.

A failed attempt at flight, 1816.

And, finally: I don't usually include GoFundMe requests, but someone on Twitter asked me to share this very sad story of a cat in need.

That's it for this week! See you on Monday, when we'll look at the unusual circumstances surrounding a couple's disappearance. In the meantime, here's the Stevie Nicks of the Woodstock set. Like Stevie, Melanie tends to grate on my nerves, but like Stevie, I'm fond of a few songs. This is one of them. Even though, like most of Stevie's lyrics, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

*Braces for the incoming missiles from Stevie Nicks groupies*

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Magazine Clipping of the Day

Via findagrave.com


A minor, but interesting historical mystery was discussed in the "Iowa Public Health Bulletin," Volume 14 (1900.):
The following from the July number of the "Embalmers' Monthly" will be interesting to our readers, as illustrating a too little recognized cause of death.

"A tall, lank man, with a narrow head and a positive expression on a well-cut countenance, entered the marble works of Frazier & Leffel, at Centralia, Ill., recently, and intimated to the business manager that he wanted a tombstone for his wife. Manager Leffel, with one eye to business and the other adjusted to a proper expression of sympathy in his patron's bereavement, proceeded to show him the large array of designs in his establishment.

"A suitable stone was soon found, and here the work began. His patron of positive countenance had more to do with the inscription than with the style of stone. It must be just so. He must have cut on it just what he wanted and as he wanted it. He was willing to pay his money for what he wanted, but didn't want any assistance to say what that was. The undertaker tried in vain to suit him, but to no avail. He couldn't catch the spirit of his dream. There was something in this case that out-reached the rigid experience of many years. Finally the tall, lank patron said: 'Give me your pencil and I'll tell you what I want.' And here it is:
'Kiss me and I will go to sleep.

ALICE
First and Last Wife
of
Thomas Phillips.

Talked to death by friends.'

"No date of birth, no date of death is given. The age is omitted. Thomas had but two purposes in mind--one was to let the world know that he would never marry again, and the other was to let it know that his wife had been talked to death by the neighbors.

"'There, no, I want it just as I wrote it; nothing more and nothing less. I propose to pay for just what I want.'

"Being assured that his wants would be strictly complied with, he paid for the monument and, giving directions where to place it, departed with the satisfied air of a man who felt that he had got even with somebody.

"This stone is an actual fact, and stands to-day in a cemetery near Boulder, in Clinton county, Ill."
[Note: the name on the actual stone is "Phillip."]

Contemporary newspapers offered a variety of colorful--and evidently completely fanciful--efforts to explain this enigmatic epitaph, but the true story behind Alice's monument seems fated to remain forever unknown.

On a side note, is anyone else as pleased as I am to learn there was a publication called "Embalmers' Monthly?"

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.