Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Christmas Murders

The Gruesome Murder of Hannah Brown

John Rennie
The Paddington Murder Sheet, published in 1837, shared the lurid details of Greenacre’s murder of Hannah Brown. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Any piece of detective work is a jigsaw puzzle – finding which bits fit and which don’t, carefully sifting and experimenting until the big picture emerges. In the case of the unfortunate Hannah Brown, however, it was literally true. A series of horrifying discoveries around London, in the early weeks of 1837, had the whole of London horrified and fascinated by one of the capital’s grisliest murder mysteries.

The men working on the Regent’s Canal in Stepney were used to oddities being washed into the lock gates. Often it was some bounty that had fallen overboard from a goods-laden tug headed up to Birmingham and the Midlands – a barrel of brandy, a sack of coal or a bolt of linen. Occasionally it was something far worse. So it was that in early January that year, the crew clearing the Ben Jonson Locks (behind the Ragged School Museum and close to what is now the junction of Ben Jonson Road, Rhodeswell Road and Copperfield Road) fished a human head from the water. A modern-day detective would have quickly established that it hadn’t been in the water for long, being still recognisable as that of a woman in middle age.

The only problem was that in 1837 the science of policing was in its infancy, and the newly formed Metropolitan Police didn’t yet have a detective branch (formed in 1829, the Met wouldn’t get a ‘CID’ until 1841). It was left to a sharp-eyed doctor to put two and two together.

A few weeks before, on 28 December, a bricklayer named Bond had been working a few miles west, on a new row of houses, Canterbury Villas, on the Edgware Road. Returning to his lodgings in Kilburn on that icy winter’s day, Mr Bond had to traverse the Regent’s Canal – where his eye alighted on a coarse wrapping of sack. The horrified builder noted that from the hessian there oozed a pool of now-frozen blood.

The police were called, to unveil a torso from which both head and legs had been crudely hacked. An inquest was organised and held – in the curious manner of the day – at the White Lion Inn on the Edgware Road. The facts were clear, if incomplete, and the coroner duly noted that the torso was that of “a woman of around 50”. The jury returned a verdict of “wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.”

A few weeks later, in the East End, Dr Girdwood, the district surgeon of Stepney, was puzzling over his severed head. He recalled the gruesome finding in Westminster and wondered whether there could be a connection. Calling his Paddington colleague, he asked for the torso to be exhumed. The untidiness of the murderer’s knife-work made it easy for the doctor to announce that the two body parts were a match. Still the story was incomplete though. Girdwood placed the head in preserving spirits and waited.

The gruesome set would be completed on 2 February. Down in Camberwell, labourer James Page had taken work cutting back willow branches around a culvert. Stepping over the ditch, he noticed a wrapping of sackcloth in the water, from which protuded a human foot. The police arrived, opened the wrapping and revealed two human legs. Rushed to Girdwood for examination, the limbs proved to be the final pieces in the puzzle. Police now had a body but no killer.

The case had filled the London papers however. And on 20 March, a Mr Gay of Goodge Street came to the Paddington churchwarden, asking for permission to inspect the body. Gay had been searching fruitlessly for his sister, Hannah Brown, who had disappeared just before Christmas.

Now the puzzle raced quickly to a conclusion. If the identity of victims sometimes took time to be revealed, the identity of their killers was usually more obvious. The constables of the Met always looked first to family members, friends and lovers; it soon emerged that Hannah had left her lodgings on Christmas Eve, telling friends she was to marry a James Greenacre of Camberwell.

Greenacre proved elusive but was finally tracked down on 24 March, to the lodgings in the Kennington Road he shared with Sarah Gale, his common law wife. In the hallway were packed trunks; in Greenacre’s pocket were tickets for a passage to America. The police searched the trunks, to find items belonging to Hannah.

 Ms Gale had lived with Mr Greenacre before he met Ms Brown. It seeems that Mr Greenacre proposed to Ms Brown, believing that she was wealthy. But it was not long before their marriage, scheduled for Christmas, that he realised this was not the case. So he is believed to have killed her as a means of escape.

Justice was swift. Just three weeks later, the pair were standing in the dock at the Old Bailey. Greenacre’s defence was non existent. He first claimed not to have known Hannah, then said she had disappeared. Gale, standing alongside her lover, became similarly confused in her defence, as she was accused of being an accessory after the fact. Today, trials last for months. That of Greenacre and Gale was over in two days, the judge summed up in a few minutes, and the jury took a quarter of an hour to reach their verdict of guilty.

This murder was a notorious case at the time as it sparked such grisly treasure hunt to find all of the body pieces. The story is also mentioned in 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher,' by Kate Summerscale, Published by Bloomsbury Press which follows the nineteenth century investigations of Camberwell-born detective inspector Jonathan Whicher.

                                             Newgate Prison, where Greenacre was held

Greenacre was hanged on the 2nd of May, 1837. By then, Gale had been transported to Australia – from where she would never return.


Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Christmas Murders

This week; The Legend Of Stagger Lee

Christmas has always been a time of merriment, socializing, and conspicuous consumption. People get thrown together who normally don’t spend much time together, passions rise and so do tempers. It’s no surprise that divorce figures rise just after Christmas and that there’s a spike in violent crime. 

In the countdown to Christmas I’m going to present you with some of the infamous 19th century murders of the season and this week we’re going to look at the crime which inspired the old blues song  ‘Stagger Lee’.

Amazingly enough, the song may be the most re-recorded in history, with well over four hundred separate recordings to its name. A brief search of the Stagger Lee name could reveal recordings from Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, Lloyd Price, Professor Longhair, The Black Keys, Samuel L. Jackson, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Wilson Picket, Taj Mahal, Fats Domino, Bob Dylan, Beck, Elvis Presley, Ike Turner, and a great many others

Lee Shelton was born March 16th 1865, the same year as John B. Stetson rented a small room and bought ten dollars worth of tools and fur. The Stetson hat company was established and it was pivotal to the crime which made Lee Shelton infamous.

In the late 1800s St. Louis was a hothouse for the new musical craze  ‘Ragtime’. The stylistic ragged syncopation  merged with the music of black people in the South and created popular songs which changed music forever. One song, “The Bully Of The Town” was a huge hit and Mama Lou, the house singer of an upmarket brothel, was famous for belting out her version of the song.  Madame Babe was also famous for throwing Oscar Wilde out of her establishment.

In 1894 a On a train from Chicago to San Francisco, white sports writer, horse judge and amateur musician, Charles E. Trevathan, played the song to amuse fellow passengers. Making no mention of St. Louis brothels, he claimed to have learned the tune from Tennessee blacks. The passengers encourages him to put lyrics to it and he goes off to do just that. It became a success.

                                                                           May Irwin

That takes us to 1895 and Trevathan’s then girlfriend May Irwin sung what is now known as “The Bully Song” in a Broadway show called “The Widow Jones.” The genre and lyrics would now be considered wildly racist and but are of interest as a social history of attitudes of the time.  At that point there was no mention of Lee Shelton in the song.

By this time ‘Stag’ or ‘Stagger’ Lee had grown up and become a successful pimp in St. Louis. There are various explanations for the nickname including the notion that he ‘went stag’ meaning that he was without friends. Later developments would show that he did indeed have friends, and some of them were in high places indeed. Another version says he took the name from a riverboat  called the ‘Stack Lee’ which was basically a floating brothel. He was known as a ‘Mack’, a group of violent pimps who stood out due to their love of flashy clothing and extravagance.

On Christmas night in 1895 Shelton was drinking with William "Billy" Lyons in the Bill Curtis Saloon. Lyons was also a member of the St. Louis underground, and both men were rivals both professionally and politically. The conversation turned to politics and an argument ensued, during which Lyons snatched the Stetson from Lee’s head and refused to give it back. The precious hat was damaged and a ransom was demanded for demanded for its return. An enraged Lee drew his gun and shot his rival in the abdomen, picked up his hat, and left.

The story was first covered in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat on December 28th, 1895. In 1896, the political scene was extremely tense, and with Saint Louis being one of the largest cities in the country, it was necessary for politicians to get every vote, including the black vote. This was increasingly relevant because the republicans were losing their stronghold, and because Shelton was a democratic organizer, and Lyons a Republican one. Stagger Lee hired one of the most prominent lawyers in the state, Nathanile Dryden, and the trial resulted in a hung jury. 

                                                                  Nathaniel Dryden

Shelton’s case was retried in 1897, and Stagger Lee was found guilty of murder and sentenced to the notorious Jefferson penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri. It only took until 1902 or 1903, depending on the source, for the first printed lyrics referring to the Stagger Lee murder.

                                                                Joseph Wingate Folk

Missouri governor Joseph Wingate Folk gave Shelton a full pardon on Thanksgiving day 1909, but Lee was not to remain free for long. In 1911, Shelton broke into a man’s home,  murdered him, and was sent to prison, but by 1912, Shelton received yet another pardon from another governor, apparently due to political pressure. Before he could be released, the infamous Stack-O-Lee died in prison of tuberculosis.

By this time, folk versions of the Stagger Lee song were cropping up all across the South. The next year, legendary Library of Congress musicologist John Lomax received a partial transcription of what was called “The Ballad of Stagalee”, from a woman in Texas. She claimed that “this song is sung by the Negroes on the levee while they are loading and unloading the river freighters.”

Duke Ellington recorded a version in 1927, and in 1928 Mississippi John Hurt recorded what is perhaps the most famous and most definitive version of Stagger Lee’s song in history.

Police officer, how can it be?
You can ‘rest everybody but cruel Stack O’ Lee
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee

Billy de Lyon told Stack O’ Lee, “Please don’t take my life,
I got two little babies, and a darlin’ lovin’ wife”
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee

“What I care about you little babies, your darlin’ lovin’ wife?
You done stole my Stetson1 hat, I’m bound to take your life”
That bad man, cruel Stack O’ Lee

…with the forty-four
When I spied Billy de Lyon, he was lyin’ down on the floor
That bad man, oh cruel Stack O’ Lee

“Gentleman’s of the jury, what do you think of that?
Stack O’ Lee killed Billy de Lyon about a five-dollar Stetson hat”
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee

And all they gathered, hands way up high,
at twelve o’clock they killed him, they’s all glad to see him die
That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O’ Lee

Stagger Lee has been sung nearly countless times. His story has appeared in movies, poems, and even as it’s own comic book. Through every generation and nearly every musical style, Stagger Lee has made an appearance. Punk, Hawaiian, Heavy Metal, Disco, Rock, Blues, Folk, Bluegrass, Country, and Soul have all seen recorded versions, often with great popularity and by names as wildly famous as Elvis and the Isley Brothers. The story of bad Stagger Lee has continued to capture American’s, and then the world’s, imaginations for over 100 years. The history of the song tells many stories. It is an anthem of the dispossessed. It expresses fear of the scary black man, the evolution of modern music, culture theft from black to white, hero worship of the outlaw, the origins of a legendary character and the writing of a Myth.

It is also our first Christmas murder from the 19th century in this series. 


Piott, Steven L. (1999). Lawrence O. Christensen, ed. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press. pp. 307–310. ISBN 0-8262-1222-0.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Thanksgiving Ragamuffins: The tradition.


 Frederick Wertz 

You might be puzzled this Thursday if you heard a knock on your door, and were posed this question by a gaggle of children dressed in creepy masks and ragged clothes.

But in 19th century America, the refrain "anything for Thanksgiving?" was far more recognizable than the "trick or treat" we associate with costumes and candies today. In fact, before the 1940's, Thanksgiving was the day scores of children roamed the streets in bizarre outfits, seeking candy and mischief.

This long-forgotten custom began at least by the 1870's in New York City, and was common in many urban areas throughout the remainder of the 19th century. A contemporary description of the tradition, via a 1908 issue of the Logansport Reporter found in our U.S. Newspaper Archives explains that "umpty-thousand little children band themselves into a fantastically arrayed army of beggars and celebrate Thanksgiving by asking alms from adult pedestrians."

                               Ragamuffins chase after pennies tossed into the air by adults.

Just like they now do on Halloween, youngsters used the opportunity to dress in many different types of costumes. Most commonly they dressed as vagrants, but other costumes became popular as well -- by 1899, the New York Times reported that "Thanksgiving masquerading has never been more universal," with "Fausts, Filipinos, Mephistos, Boers, Uncle Sames, John Bulls, Harlequins, bandits and sailors" parading around the streets. Back then, Thanksgiving was the major season for candy stores and mask makers.

Like Halloween, the youth that roamed the streets on Thanksgiving were prone to a great deal of mischief, especially if you didn't meet their demands by giving them either pennies, apples or candy. According to the Logansport Reporter, those who couldn't pay up were subject to getting whacked over the head with a flour sack or getting loud party-horns blown into their faces.
Frugal adults weren't the only ones terrorized by Thanksgiving Ragamuffins. The costumes were evidently scary - so scary that they allegedly gave a young girl an incurable case of the hiccups. We found this news-wire tidbit published in over a dozen papers in our newspaper archives between January and April of 1914:

We were unfortunately unable to confirm that young Ms. Hilda Cain ever stopped hiccoughing. Curse those horrible Thanksgiving Ragamuffins!

Predictably, many adults did not look favorably on this tradition, especially for those of upper-class families who thought their children were far too good to be begging. And of course, it didn't help that a common shortcut for children who couldn't find a better costume was to swap clothes with siblings of the opposite sex, resulting in a decent amount of cross-dressing:

Adults increasingly grew tired of this tomfoolery occurring on the same day of national Thanksgiving - a very serious and sometimes solemn holiday in the 19th and first half of the 20th century and by the 1930's, the tradition was on its way out.

As we can see here in this clipping from the Daily Ardmoreite in November of 1932, respectable adults disapproved of the tradition on multiple levels:

If the children are humored in their panhandling for one day, some can't understand why it shouldn't be tolerated all the time.

As the Thanksgiving Day Parade became the more recognized Thanksgiving tradition and celebration, the Ragamuffins slowly receded from the nation's memory. Though they disappeared from wealthier areas of cities close to time the above article was published, poorer areas saw Ragamuffins slightly longer.

The tradition didn't fully die, however - Halloween soon became the day designated for strange costumes, candy collection and mischief. Some neighborhoods held Ragamuffin parades as late as 1967, but by the 1940's, it was more common to see children in costume on Halloween.

Find My Past U.S.
Global Newspaper Archive
Daily Ardmoreite
Library Of Congress

Sunday, 19 November 2017

The Real Electric Frankenstein Experiments of the 1800s

Why scientists during the late 18th and 19th centuries conducted crude experiments with reanimating corpses.


In this 1867 illustration, a crowd of scientists watch in horror as Andrew Ure makes the lifeless body of Matthew Clydesdale tremble and twitch with electricity.

ON NOVEMBER 4, 1818, SCOTTISH chemist Andrew Ure stood next to the lifeless corpse of an executed murderer, the man hanging by his neck at the gallows only minutes before. He was performing an anatomical research demonstration for a theater filled with curious students, anatomists, and doctors at the University of Glasgow. But this was no ordinary cadaver dissection. Ure held two metallic rods charged by a 270-plate voltaic battery to various nerves and watched in delight as the body convulsed, writhed, and shuddered in a grotesque dance of death.

“When the one rod was applied to the slight incision in the tip of the forefinger,” Ure later described to the Glasgow Literary Society, “the fist being previously clenched, that finger extended instantly; and from the convulsive agitation of the arm, he seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom thought he had come to life.”

Ure is one of many scientists during the late 18th and 19th centuries who conducted crude experiments with galvanism—the stimulation of muscles with pulses of electrical current. The bright sparks and loud explosions made for stunning effects that lured in both scientists and artists, with this era of reanimation serving as inspiration for Mary Shelley’s literary masterpiece, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. While most scientists were using galvanism to search for clues about life, Ure wanted to see if it could actually bring someone back from the dead.

“This was a time when people were trying to understand the origin of life, when religion was losing some of its hold,” says Juliet Burba, chief curator of the exhibit “Mary and Her Monster” at the Bakken Museum in Minnesota, which will open October 29. “There was a lot of interest in the question: What is the essence that animates life? Could it be electricity?”

                                    A sketch of Luigi Galvani's 1780 frog muscle experiment.  

In 1780, Italian anatomy professor Luigi Galvani discovered that he could make the muscles of a dead frog twitch and jerk with sparks of electricity. Others quickly began to experiment by applying electricity to other animals that quickly grew morbid. Galvani’s nephew, physicist Giovanni Aldini, obtained the body of an ox, proceeding to cut off the head and use electricity to twist its tongue. He sent such high levels of voltage through the diaphragm of the ox that it resulted in “a very strong action on the rectum, which even produced an expulsion of the feces,” Aldini wrote.   

People outside of science were also fascinated by electricity. They would attend shows where bull heads and pigs were electrified, and watch public dissections at research institutions such as the Company of Surgeons in England, which later became the Royal College of Surgeons.

Scientists like Aldini would put on shows, electrifying cow heads and making their tongues writhe and twitch.

When scientists tired of testing animals, they turned to corpses, particularly corpses of murderers. In 1751, England passed the Murder Act, which allowed the bodies of executed murderers to be used for experimentation. “The reasons the Murder Act came about were twofold: there weren’t enough bodies for anatomists, and it was seen as a further punishment for the murderer,” says Burba. “It was considered additional punishment to have your body dissected.”

Lying on Ure’s table was the muscular, athletic corpse of 35-year-old coal miner, Matthew Clydesdale. On August 1818, Clydesdale drunkenly murdered an 80-year-old miner with a coal pick and was sentenced to be hung at the gallows. His body remained suspended and limp for nearly an hour, while a thief who had been executed next to Clydesdale at the same time convulsed violently for several moments after death. The blood was drained from the body for half an hour before the experiments began.

                  The 1751 Murder Act allowed scientists to run experiments on corpses of prisoners.

Andrew Ure, who had little to no known experience with electricity, was a mere assistant to James Jeffray, an anatomy professor at the University of Glasgow. He had studied medicine at Glasgow University and served briefly as an army surgeon, but was otherwise known for teaching chemistry. “Not much is known about Ure, but he was sort of a minor figure in the history of science,” says Alex Boese, author of Elephants on Acid: And Other Bizarre Experiments. One of Ure’s main accomplishments was this single bizarre galvanic experiment, he says. 

Others, such as Aldini, conducted similar experiments, but scholars write that Ure was convinced that electricity could restore life back into the dead. “While Aldini contented himself with the role of spasmodic puppeteer, Ure’s ambitions were well nigh Frankesteinian,” wrote Ulf Houe in Studies in Romanticism.

Ure charged the battery with dilute nitric and sulphuric acids five minutes before the police delivered the body to the University of Glasgow’s anatomical theater. Incisions were made at the neck, hip, and heels, exposing different nerves that were jolted with the metallic rods. When Ure sent charges through Clydesdale’s diaphragm and saw his chest heave and fall, he wrote that “the success of it was truly wonderful.”

                                                       An engraving of Andrew Ure.

Ure’s descriptions of the experiment are vivid. He poetically noted how the convulsive movements resembled “a violent shuddering from cold” and how the fingers “moved nimbly, like those of a violin performer.” Other passages, like this one about stimulating muscles in Clydesdale’s forehead and brow, are more macabre:

“Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action; rage, horror, despair, anguish, and ghastly smiles, united their hideous expression in the murderer’s face, surpassing far the wildest representations of a Fuseli or a Kean,” wrote Ure, comparing the result to the visage of tragic actor, Edmund Kean, and the fantastical works of romantic painter Henry Fuseli. He continued: “At this period several of the spectators were forced to leave the apartment from terror or sickness, and one gentleman fainted.”

The whole experiment lasted about an hour. “Both Jeffray and Ure were quite deliberately intent on the restoration of life,” wrote F.L.M. Pattinson in the Scottish Medical Journal. But the reasons for the lack of success were thought to have little to do with the method: Ure concluded that if death was not caused by bodily injury there was a probability that life could have been restored. But, if the experiment succeeded it wouldn’t have been celebrated since he would be reviving a murderer, he wrote.

Two demons hover behind a galvanized corpse, one chuckling: "There! We've lost him after all. See! They are bringing him to life again!"

Mary Shelley was aware of the types of scientific experiments researchers were toying with at the time. “Science was something that the public paid attention to,” says Burba. “There was a lot of crossover, so there were poets who knew a lot about science and scientists who wrote poetry.”

Two years before Ure conducted the experiment, Mary Shelley came up with the story of Frankenstein, and published the novel in 1818, the same year as Ure’s experiment. By sheer coincidence, Victor Frankenstein also brought the monster to life “on a dreary night of November.” However, unlike Ure, the scene of the creature’s resurrection is brief and vague, with no mention of the word “electricity.” Shelley wrote that Frankenstein “collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.”

Some historians have hypothesized that Shelley was inspired by other medical procedures being studied at the time, including blood transfusion and organ transplants. It isn’t until later in her introduction of the 1831 edition of the book that Shelley mentions galvanism: “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”

                   A steel engraving of Mary Shelley’s 1831 edition of Frankenstein.

It’s unclear whether Frankenstein further encouraged Ure or others to dapple in galvanic experimentation, or if Shelley was particularly struck by any one experiment. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and these galvanic experiments happened in tandem, Burba explains, pointing out that the language in the novel reflects that of scientists of that era. “Both of these things were happening within a cultural milieu where there was great interest in electricity as well as the effects of electricity on bodies—whether electricity might be the ‘spark of being’ that animates life.” 

No actual scientific knowledge or data came from Ure’s experiment, yet he still enthusiastically lectured about his experience. He wrote up the results in a pamphlet, which was seen as “publicity of the crudest kind,” W.V. Farrar wrote in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London. “This rather ‘Gothick’ experiment, reported in such appropriate literary style, no doubt made Ure’s name better known.”

These animated and horrifying displays eventually went out of style as sectors of the public began to view them as evil and “satanic in nature.” Electricity’s first rudimentary experiments on the body did make way for resuscitation technologies such as defibrillation, but the focus is now on saving lives, not reanimating a long-dead corpse.

It all started with a little frog muscle experiment, one that anatomy students still conduct in labs today. 

“Traditionally, we overlook horrors in the name of science,” says Boese. “We have codes of what’s acceptable behavior in normal everyday life, but people put on a lab coat and there are totally different codes of conduct that seem to apply. These scientists in the early 18th century were gentleman, upstanding members of society, yet they’re doing these things that seem totally sociopathic and bizarre.”

Some of their experiments on non-human animals have stood the test of time, however. Students in biology classes still conduct Galvani’s famous frog muscle experiment today.


Sunday, 12 November 2017

The First Lady Of San Quentin - Mary Von

                                                                       Mary Von

Shayne Davidson

She was prone to episodes of violence. Very little is known of her early life, including her birth name. Born in Ireland in the 1840s when the potato famine reached its deadly pinnacle, she immigrated to America and ended up in California. The name she became infamous by was “Mary Von.”

Mary was first mentioned in the news in December 1884 when she shot a man named Captain L. Haight in San Francisco. At the time she lived at 4 Eddy place and worked as a dress cutter. She and her victim quarreled after he tried to enter her rooms uninvited. Captain Haight recovered from the wound and Mary pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. She was sentenced to a year in San Quentin Prison.

Mary claimed to have been married to a German nobleman by the name of Von Hammerschimdt and at the time of her first incarceration she was using the surname Hammerschmidt or Hammersmith. After her release from prison, in February 1886, she dropped Hammerschmidt and began going by the name Dr. Mary Von.

At this point Mary’s story takes a peculiar turn. She took out a string of advertisements in the Oakland Tribune, starting in late September 1886, offering her services as a natural or “faith” healer. She claimed to be able to cure numerous illnesses using her mind, with a special talent for women’s diseases. It’s impossible to know if Mary truly believed she had mental healing powers or if she was just another of the quacks and con artists roaming around the Bay Area in search of suckers to swindle.

          Mary Von’s advertisement in the Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, Wed., Nov. 3, 1886.

Evidently she soon lost interest in the faith-healing field and began to explore other career options. Through advertisements taken out in a “matrimonial” newspaper in the spring of 1887, she met a New Zealand man named George Wesley Bishop. Bishop had just arrived in San Francisco for business and was reputed to be wealthy. He planned to stay awhile.

Bishop was looking for steady female companionship, despite being a married man, so he and Mary set up housekeeping together, with Bishop footing the bill. He rented a house on Powell Street and the couple moved in. He bought expensive gifts for Mary and a lot of nice furniture for the house. Mary claimed that she and Bishop were married, however Bishop was under no such illusion.

It only took a month for things to turn sour — Bishop decided Mary was only in the arrangement for his money — something he was rapidly running out of. He moved out of the house and demanded the furniture be returned. A lawsuit ensued in which Mary said her heart had been broken and, as consolation, she should get to keep the furniture. Bishop won the lawsuit. Recognizing that Mary was unstable, he decided he needed to return to New Zealand — the sooner the better.

Hearing Bishop was leaving town before she’d had time to appeal the court’s decision, Mary took matters into her own hands. Early on the morning of July 1, 1887, a woman described by witnesses as tall, portly and overdressed, waited near the gangplank of the R.M.S. Alameda at the Oceanic Dock in San Francisco — it was Mary Von and she had a gun hidden in her shawl.

Bishop arrived at the dock in the early afternoon and headed up the gangplank. Mary followed him onboard and without discussion she shot him in the back. A nearby passenger knocked the gun from her hand before she was able to fire a second time. Initially it was thought that Bishop would recover, but on July 3rd he died. Mary claimed she only meant to threaten him, not to murder him.

Mary was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and given a life sentence at San Quentin. She arrived at the prison on October 18, 1887. The following year she assaulted the matron of the female department with an iron stove lifter. Luckily for all, the matron survived.

                                                              San Quentin circa 1900

Mary Von was the first woman photographed at San Quentin when prison officials began taking mugshots of prisoners in the late 1890s. Incarcerated there for 26 years, she was finally paroled in June 1911. Because the world had changed so much in the intervening years and because she had no friends or family left on the outside, Mary voluntarily returned to San Quentin the following year and died in the prison on February 16, 1913. She was buried in a San Rafael potter’s field, precise location unknown.

Featured photo: Mary Von, San Quentin Prison Registers, Inmate Photographs and Mug Books. California State Archives, Sacramento, California.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Daniel Dunglas Home Magician or Psychic?

by Stephen Wagner
                          Did D. D. Home truly possess extraordinary paranormal abilities?

Daniel Dunglas Home was the most celebrated medium of the 19th century. Although his name is not very well known today, he astonished audiences, friends, heads of state, and the rich and famous with startling paranormal feats and levitation. His seemingly impossible powers bewildered those who witnessed them, including many respected scientists and journalists.

Or was he a gifted magician, far ahead of his time, who was able to fool even the closest of observers with slight of hand and magician's illusions? Although there were certainly many skeptics among his contemporaries who denounced him as a clever fraud, they could never really prove how he accomplished his many incredible demonstrations. To this day, there is much mystery surrounding Home.


Home (pronounced "Hume") was born in 1833 in Currie, Scotland. Like many people who seek the public spotlight or a presence in "show business," Home seems to have exaggerated or fabricated details of his early life and heritage. For example, he was baptized as Daniel Home and seems to have adopted the middle name of Dunglas. Although he claimed to that his father was the bastard son of the tenth earl of Scotland, his father was actually an ordinary laborer and, by some accounts, an abusive drunk.

As a baby, he was adopted by an aunt and at age nine was brought to America where his new family settled in Connecticut.

Home may also have created some myths about his childhood. He said that as an adolescent he began to experience premonitions. At age 17, poltergeist activity would occur when he entered a room: mysterious raps would be heard and furniture would move by itself.

Were these stories Home made up to enhance his mystical persona, or were they early signs of unexplained abilities that Home would later be able to control?

Although he had little formal education, as an adult Home could converse intelligently on a number of subjects, could play the piano, and developed an easy wit and charm that facilitated his profession as a "professional house guest." It was at this time that his remarkable abilities came to prominence. His early reputation as a medium was made by his séances, which participants declared as uncanny, and his apparent powers of clairvoyance and healing.


Over his controversial career, these are just some of the feats D. D. Home was seen to perform around the world:

In a well-lit room before Professor David Wells of Harvard and three other spiritualist investigators, Home caused a table to move all about, even though he stood nowhere near it. It took all the strength of two of the witnesses to restrain the table. Upon its release, the table levitated completely off the floor for several seconds. When Wells and two others sat on the table, it continued to rock. They could find no scientific explanation for the experience.
Next page: Levitations, manifestations and more

In 1852, Home first demonstrated self-levitation. Witnesses watched in astonishment as he rose a foot or more above the floor. When they tried to hold him down, they too were lifted off the ground.
During séances, he was able to make phantom hands appear, which sitters were able to feel. In 1857, he held a séance in Paris with Napolean III and his empress, Eugénie. The empress held a spirit hand that she recognized as her dead father's -- because of the characteristic deformity of one finger.
He was able to elongate his body by as much as 11 inches.

In a July, 1868 séance in a normally lit room of the home of a client, the host's elderly mother was levitated in the chair in which she sat.

In December, 1868, Home gave what is perhaps his most famous performance. At his apartment in London, Home conducted a séance for three respected gentlemen. After some "conventional" spirit apparitions, Home began to walk around the room. His body elongated, according to the witnesses, then Home rose off the ground. Returning to the floor he then went into an adjoining room. The men heard a window open in that room and shortly after saw Home apparently floating in midair outside their window. The apartment was three stories up. Home opened the window from the outside, then "glided into the room feet foremost and sat down."

In 1871, Home was tested by William Crookes, a respected physicist and fellow of the Royal Society. With a contraption of weights he had devised, Crookes sought to measure the "power, force or influence, proceeding from his hand." Crookes measured a force equal to about three-quarters of a pound, and was at a complete loss to explain it. Crookes was also witness to Home's levitation, which, he wrote, challenged his "most firmly rooted articles of scientific belief."

In a demonstration he did many times, Home could hold white-hot embers in his bare hands. He was even seen to plunge his hands and his face into a hearth fire, "moving it about as though bathing it in water." His skin showed no signs of injury whatsoever.


                                                                 Harry Houdini

Home astonished many, but not all.

Harry Houdini, known for his debunking of spiritualists and séances, denounced Home as a fraud and claimed to be able to duplicate his feats of levitation... although he never did. And while many skeptics were sure Home's demonstrations were only trickery, Home was not once in any of his 1,500 séances caught in any kind of deception or exposed in perpetrating a hoax. This fact alone earned him his great reputation.

So, while reason says that Home was an extremely gifted magician and illusionist, on a par, perhaps, with some of the great illusionists working today such legerdemain was never proved. And because many of his feats were accomplished in broad daylight in full view and inspection of witnesses, Home must be regarded either as one of the greatest magicians of all time or a true medium with extraordinary, unexplained powers.

That brings about an interesting point, if one takes the position that Home's abilities were not supernatural: If Home had presented himself as a magician rather than a medium, he might be regarded and remembered today with greater awe than the legendary Houdini.


Monday, 30 October 2017

How Did Halloween Come to be Such A Big Holiday?

Halloween was Celtic New Year and has been celebrated in the Celtic fringes of the British Isles since time immemorial. One of my personal bugbears is when English people complain about it being an American holiday. It is not. It has been celebrated over here for thousands of years. It's just not an English holiday. That does not mean it's not British.

Our Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ancestors have been celebtrating verions for thousands of years. In Cornwall it was called Allentide. in the Isle Of Man it is still called Hop-tu-Naa. The Welsh call it Calan Gaeaf. Children and women would dance around a village fire and, during this process, everyone would write their names on rocks and place them in and around said fire. When the fire started to die out they would all run home, "Adref, adref, am y cyntaf', Hwch ddu gwta a gipio'r ola'." (Home, home, on the double, The tailless black sow shall snatch the last [one].) The following morning, all the stones containing villagers' names would be checked. If, however, a stone was missing, the person who wrote their name on the stone would die within one year. 

Immigrants from all these countries took their traditions to the new world where they were embraced and celebrated until it finally grew into the holiday we know today. Irish and Scottish traditions are similar and closely related and the immigrants celebrated with fireworks, telling ghost stories, playing games,and making mischief. There were games such as bobbing for apples, dooking, the dropping of forks on apples without using hands, and Puicini - an Irish fortune-telling game using saucers. Young women were frequently told if they sat in dark rooms and gazed into a mirror, the face of their future husbands would appear, however, if a skull appeared, the poor girl would be destined to die before marriage.

It took until the 1930s for the holiday to become as widespread as it is today, but as I am Scottish let's look at some of the ways the holiday was celebrated there. 

Halloween -or Samhain- marked the start of the new Celtic year with the celebration bringing light an protection as the darkness drew in. Here we look at nine old customs of Halloween in Scotland, some which are rooted in Celtic times and others which lasted until the 19th Century. From fortune telling cabbage stalks to burning nuts and disappearing stones of the dead, how Scotland marked this important turning point in the calendar is far removed from the celebrations of today.

 Samhain is Irish Gaelic for "summer's end." The standard Irish pronunciation is "sow-in" with the "ow" like in "cow." Other pronunciations that follow with the many Gaelic dialects include "sow-een" "shahvin" "sowin" (with "ow" like in "glow"). The Scots Gaelic spelling is "Samhuin" or "Samhuinn." There is no linguistic foundation for saying this word "samhane" the way it might look if it were English. When in doubt, just say "Hallows" or even "Hallowe'en."

In Scottish Gaelic we say "Samhuinn" as "SAH-vin" or "SAH-win": the 'mh' is sort of somewhere between a 'v' and a 'w'

Halloween, or Samhain, was one of the two great fire festivals of the Celtic calendar and traditionally marked the beginning of the new year. Hallow fires would be kindled to mark the end of the harvest season and the return of animals to the fold. Fires were generally lit on high points of the landscape far from homes and steadings and were seen an attack on the “powers of darkness” at a time of shortenings days and weakened sun, according to McPherson’s Primitive Beliefs in the North East of Scotland. He added: “In particular, the witches were holding high revelry, and their great conventions to work woe upon mankind were assembled on high hill and bleak moorland.

“Man resorted with cheerful confidence to the heaven-given weapon of holy fire.” Debris from Hallow fire would be taken to rejuvenate hearths in the home. The Hallow fire continued to be lit to the end of the 18th Century, according to accounts.

Folk would walk the circuit of their fields with burning torches on Halloween to ward off evil and ensure fertile land for the following year. The mother and father of the house lit splints from a peat fire before passing them to servants and children of the house. They would then head outdoors and tread the border of the property before throwing the splints to the ground and allowing them.

To ward off potentially malevolent entities, large bonfires were lit in communities and it is believed that this practice survives today in the tradition of carving pumpkin lanterns with creepy grimaces. While the use of pumpkins is actually an American invention, in Scotland it has been custom to carve lanterns out of ‘neeps’ or turnips. That's no easy task. The vegetable is very solid and I remember my father's hand aching for a week after he'd worked on one for us kids.

With witches feared to be at full power at Halloween, there was only one place for them - the fire. Boys are said to have gone door-to-door asking for a peat to burn the witch. At Balmoral, when Queen Victoria was in residence, a huge bonfire was set in front of the castle by men dressed in Highland garb, according to McPherson. Among the men was a trolley - known as a shandy dann - which contained the effigy of a “hideous old woman” who was marched at speed towards the fire to the strain of bagpipes. 

Following a sudden stop, a form of charge sheet was read aloud to outline as why the witch should be tipped on the flames. McPherson wrote: “With a rush an a shout and skirling of bagpipes, the sledge and its occupant are hurled topsy-turvy into the fire. “Then follow cheers and hoots of derisive laughter as the inflammable wrappings of the shandy dann cracks and sputters out. “All the while the residents of the castle stand enjoying the curious rite, and no one there entered more heartily into it than the head of the Empire herself.”

In some parts, great attention was paid to the ashes and other debris of the fire. Once the Hallow fire had burnt out, a stone would be placed on the ash to represent each member of the family. The next morning, the family would return to the fire to check the stones. If a stone was missing, the person it represented would be dead before the next Hallow fire was set. This ritual was recorded in Aberdeenshire and Callander with a version also noted in North Wales as stated above.

                                                                    The Seonaidh

The Celtic water spirit the Seonaidh (pronounced Shoney) was gifted a pot of ale on Halloween to bestow blessings on the local fisherman. Reports suggest that people on the Isle of Lewis would gather on the beach while one fisherman waded into the water up to his waist before pouring the ale into the sea.

Richard Waitt's The Cromartie Fool illustrates the Halloween custom of picking kail to determine the nature of a future spouse. 

The old rituals acted out on Halloween often had a hint of fortune telling. Pulling the kail castoc - or cabbage stalk - was noted in a poem by Robert Burns in 1785. Traditionally, a male and female would go blindfolded to the kailyard - or kitchen garden - and pull the first ‘castoc’ that they saw. It size and shape was said to tell the look of their future spouse. The taste would determine their nature and whether they be sweet or sour. If much earth had stuck to the stalk, the dowry on the bride would be substantial. The stems would then be placed over the front door. The name of the first person to walk under the kail would be the name of the husband or the wife. Different versions of the custom exist. On Islay, kail stocks were also important in the celebration of Halloween. In Islay Voices by Jenni Minto and Les Wilson, one account tells of young men stealing kail and taking the stalks to an old woman skilled in using them to read fortunes. 

The kail stalks were sometimes turned into a form of pipe on Halloween for “bundering”. Boys and young men would go door-to-door with their hollowed out pipes, which would be packed with a type of kindling, and blow smoke into homes to purify them. 

Halloween seemed to be the time to search for answers about a future spouse. In a game called 'Win’ing the blew clew' a woman searching for her husband would tease and spin a ball of wool from a male lamb’s fleece and throw it into the fire on Halloween, holding on to the end of a thread. The woman would take this an start winding another ball. When it started to tug , she would ask the fire “Who’s that, that holds the end of my thread?” 

The voice from the fire would ‘say’ the name of her husband to be, according to the custom. In some places, blue yarn had to be thrown into the fire.

Another way to predict a future spouse was to burn nuts. Each nut would be given the name of a likely suitor before being laid on the fire. How the nuts reacted to the heat would determine the course of the courtship. Peas were often used in the ritual too. Two were placed on a live peat, one representing a boy and the other a girl. If the two stayed put on the peat as it burned, a happy marriage was signalled. If one rolled away, it suggested there would be no union.

Guising or ‘galoshin’ is ancient and something the old folks would actually look forward to as they helped the children make their outfits for the holiday.. Instead of trick-or-treating, children would literally disguise themselves as evil spirits by blackening their faces and dressing in old clothes to go guising. According to folklore, this was so that they could venture out safely without being detected by wicked ghouls. Guisers also couldn’t simply knock on the doors of their neighbours yelling ‘trick-or-treat’ and expect sweets in return. They had to perform a ‘trick’ first by reciting a song, poem or joke before being rewarded with goodies. That was the origin of the saying 'trick or treat' yelled by modern children. 

A staple of children’s Halloween parties across the country, this time-honoured game involves trying to grab apples floating in a tub of water using your mouth, with your hands tied behind your back. If you want to up the stakes at this game of 'dookin’ for apples' have a go at catching them with a fork dropped from a high perch on a stool.

However you celebrate this ancient holiday, whether it be sitting quietly at home or surrounded by excited children dressed as spooks and superheroes, have a great one. Happy Halloween.

Creative Commons pictures
Samhain pic copyright Klara Osickova
McPherson’s Primitive Beliefs in the North East of Scotland.