"...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, February 23, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the Exalted Order of Parachuting Cats!

What the hell is the Forrest Fenn treasure?

How the hell did Florida get flamingos?

Watch out for the White Dogs of Death!

Watch out for the Batsquatch!

Watch out for those underground monsters!

Watch out for that haunted ice!

Watch out for that maternal imagination!

Watch out for those portals to Hell!

Watch out for those aliens who need new heads!

Canada is really humming!

That time you could have Wellington knocking at your door.

The man who--however reluctantly--beheaded Charles I.

Is there a pyramid in North Dakota?

Neolithic spider web stones.

A pre-Victorian guide to perfect posture.

Dining with the dead.

The world's loneliest tree.

Madame Tussaud and the beheaded politicians.

A brief history of gin.  Including the time it was dispensed by a cat!

Ireland's Fabulous Folbanes.

A merchant ship uses boiling oil to fight off pirates.  If you think this is a story from the 17th century, read on.

China is taking the "fun" out of "funeral."

NASA reveals a gravesite on Mars.

The life of an 18th century actress.

This week's "Neanderthals weren't all that Neanderthal" link.

This week's "pushing back human plant history" link.

The origin of Albion.

A woman disappears on the Appalachian Trail.

The Milk Bottle Murder.

Never a dull moment in 9th century Mercia.

18th century tennis.

18th century attorneys.

The last woman to be legally hanged in Australia.

19th century infanticide trials.

The Devil and tort law.

A remarkable Stone Age bracelet.

Another illusion shattered:  John Quincy Adams did not really own an alligator.

The mysterious death of a Thai king.


The execution of a Georgian brothel keeper.

A Georgian sex manual.

King Arthur in Poland.

The man with a fairy foot.

A piece of music that hid a coded message.

The Countess of psychedelic science.

Mesopotamian medical writings.

The world's oldest boxing gloves.

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

Whiny Egyptian ghosts.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at an editor's odd disappearance.  In the meantime, here's a truly remarkable concert:

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This is a banner month for Strange Company HQ.  First there was Blackie, the talking and litigious cat, now...

...Puffy, the cat hypnotist.

From the "Cincinnati Enquirer," April 9, 1945:

Puffy, a cat that hypnotizes people, was named honorary President of the American Feline Society, Inc., today today and officially dubbed "King of All Cats."

Citing the cream-colored Persian for devoting his "phenomenal psychic powers" to War Bond sales and entertaining wounded veterans, Robert Lothar Kendell, the society's President, declared: "We truly believe you to be the greatest living feline, with powers never before possessed by a cat or, so far as we can learn, by any living creature other than a human being."

Puffy, credited with putting more than 300 persons into a hypnotic trance with his huge, unblinking eyes, was all puffed up over the honor, reported his owner-assistant, Arthur Newman, "He's autographing pictures with his paw print like crazy," said Newman.

It was one night last fall that Puffy, then a kitten, first demonstrated his powers. "He was sitting on the end of a night club bar," Newman recalls, his voice becoming hushed, "and a couple of girls came up to pet him. I didn't pay much attention until one of the girls nudged me and whispered, "Look at my friend!'

"Well, sir, that girl was simply out on her feet. It wasn't from drinking, either. I'm something of a hypnotist myself and I quickly realized that she was in a real hypnotic trance, brought on by Puffy's staring into her eyes."

Newman, who had bought Puffy in a pet shop for purposes of demonstrating that people should relax like cats, immediately started training him to stare even more fixedly, with such success that Puffy now can stare Newman down any time.

Thousands of servicemen in hospitals and canteens have seen Puffy perform. He stares into a subject's eyes while Newman slowly counts out loud. In less than 10 seconds the subject closes his eyes, goes rigid or relaxed, and has to be awakened by Newman. 
Skeptics to the contrary, Newman insists it's Puffy and not himself that does the hypnotizing. "If that cat could only talk," he says, "I'd quit working and just manage Puffy."

People always feel better--headaches gone, and the like--after being hypnotized by Puffy, Newman says, because they have become relaxed in spite of themselves. Several have taken the pledge after watching Puffy do his act in a bar.

Here is a news item from the "Pottstown Mercury," December 16, 1944, showing Puffy's formidable talents in action:

This may be my blog's finest hour.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Too Many Skeletons: The Ringstead Mystery

Lydia Atley was born into a sad life, which makes her sad death tragically unsurprising. She was born in the small and largely impoverished English village of Ringstead around 1826. Her father, a miller, disappeared from her life early on, whether from death or desertion is not clear. Her mother was a pauper, meaning that from a very young age, Lydia and her sister were forced to scrape together a bare living any way they could. Lydia made simple lace, and did whatever errands and odd-jobs she could find in the village. It all kept her alive, but did little else.

Nature did not give the girl any additional advantages. Contemporary accounts bluntly describe Lydia as exceptionally plain, slow-witted, and easily led. (This last characteristic was believed to explain how she came to have an illegitimate child of unknown paternity, who was placed in the local workhouse.) However, for all her difficulties, she was a good-natured girl who seems to have inspired a certain protective fondness from many of her peers.

Unfortunately for Lydia, she brought out much uglier qualities in the local butcher, William Weekly Ball. Despite the fact that he had a wife, in 1850 he was conducting a open liaison with Atley—so open, that it was no secret that in the summer of that year she was about to give birth to his child. Ball was, for Ringstead, fairly wealthy, and although he could not marry Atley, she expected him to at least provide financial support for the upcoming child. She told her brother-in-law, Joseph Groom, that if Ball did not give her money, “there would be a row.”

It was to arrange this aid that she met with Ball in his orchard on the evening of July 22, 1850—and there was indeed a row, although it was not like anything the poor woman could have anticipated. Groom, who was near the orchard at the time, later testified to overhearing a fierce argument between the two, culminating with Atley crying, “Get off me for I believe you mean killing me tonight, Weekly Ball. The lord have mercy on me, if I am going to die in the state that I am in.” He then heard an odd screaming sound.

Whether Groom was miserably cowardly, incredibly callous, or simply an idiot is unrecorded, but for whatever reason, he ignored what he had heard. Another neighbor also heard the sounds of Atley and Ball fighting, with Lydia insisting that her upcoming child was Ball’s, and she would see to it that he would take responsibility. This witness, like Groom, said nothing about it until much, much later. Clearly, the residents of Ringstead were overly anxious to disprove the stereotype of “nosy villagers.”

This was the last anyone knew of Lydia Atley. Her disappearance was a perplexing mystery, for at this point, Groom and the other neighbor were still keeping what they had heard to themselves. The local police made some attempts to investigate, and hand-bills were circulated asking for information about her, but these efforts proved futile. A local resident then received a letter from her son saying that he had just seen Atley in Northampton, and this was enough to make the authorities shrug and forget the matter.

The citizens of Ringstead were not nearly so easily convinced there was no foul play afoot. We know little about Ball’s reputation before Atley vanished, but local opinion had no difficulty in assuming the very worst about her fate, even though diligent searches failed to uncover her body. There was even a ballad, “The Cruel Butcher of Ringstead,” which became a local sensation:

“About that time we all do know
Up to the Black Horse that man did go
And for to have a glass of ale
And there he told a dreadful tale
A cruel Butcher he hung should be
For killing of Lydia Atlee…”

Admittedly, the lyrics weren’t exactly Cole Porter, but they had their effect. In 1851, Ball wisely packed his bags and moved to the village of Ramsey. Atley’s disappearance was never forgotten in Ringstead, but as the years went on, it naturally faded into the background.

It was not until fourteen years went by that the missing woman was brought back to everyone’s attention. On February 4th, 1864, a local man was cleaning a dike. As he was digging, his spade hit something hard about two feet from the surface. It proved to be a human skeleton. Examination established that it was of a female, who had been buried for some years. The skull had a missing tooth.

The citizens of Ringstead had been convinced from the start that Ball murdered Atley, and they felt they now finally had the means to prove it. They were quickly able to convince magistrates to issue a warrant for Ball’s arrest, and he was put on trial. There was a parade of witnesses with fourteen-year old memories. Groom and the other neighbors who heard the fight between Atley and Ball finally revealed their information. Another brother-in-law of Atley’s stated that, about two weeks before she disappeared, he had extracted one of her teeth—in the same place, he believed, where this skeleton was lacking a tooth. The man who had written the letter claiming he had seen Atley in Northampton now admitted that Ball himself had persuaded him to write it.

The public was convinced that poor ill-used Lydia Atley would finally get some justice. And then, something unexpected happened that pulled the rug out from this seemingly air-tight case. In the spot where the skeleton had been discovered, another set of bones was unearthed. And then, in the very same place, another skeleton was found. And yet another.

This sudden superfluity of skeletons doomed the prosecution. The case against Ball was withdrawn, and he triumphantly left the courthouse a free man, if not exactly one without a stain on his character. He returned to Ramsey, where he seems to have been considerably more popular than in Ringstead, and led a quiet and prosperous life until his death in 1896.

Lydia Atley’s fate remains a mystery. Was Ball, as many people believed, a murderer, or did the unhappy woman commit suicide when she realized her lover refused to help her? In either case, where is her body? If Ball did kill her, how could he have disposed of her remains so quickly and thoroughly? Who were all those skeletons that were discovered in 1864? Was Lydia's among them?

Unsurprisingly, Atley’s spirit was believed to be a restless one. Local legend describes her haunting the village for many years later. The more colorful accounts state that she would appear in front of amorous couples hoping to make a trysting-place of the area where she was last seen, as a way of warning other women not to follow her “immoral” example.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump sees another beautiful celebrity sponsor!

And Betty Grable.

What the hell happened in Olympic National Park?

Why the hell do we sleep?

Watch out for the Bunyip!

Watch out for the Bijli!

Watch out for those bewitched hearts!

The mysterious Hasanlu Lovers.

A mysterious murder in early 19th century Iceland.

A not-so-mysterious murder in early 19th century Louisiana.

The strangest and creepiest ancient underwater tomb you could ever hope to see.

The Heart Balm racket.

The mystic shoemaker and Edgar Allan Poe.

Dark days and a phantom town in Ireland.

What the well-dressed suffragette is wearing.

Hey, cats aren't the only animals who talk.

This is...odd.

Solving a 500-year-old code.

A bit of real-life "I, Claudius."

What to do if you get a cherry stone into your ear.  Hey, such things happen.

A guy put together 42,000 matches and did an awesome job of recreating what will happen the day our sun goes supernova.

An Elizabethan tale of marriage woes and witchcraft.

Melting ice is uncovering Norwegian artifacts.

A youthful poisoner.

The man with too many wives.

18th century literary cats.

The origins of Valentine's Day.

Vulnerable Victorian governesses.

A literal kiss of death.

A girl, a dog, and a remarkable reunion.

That time they wanted to fill in New York's East River.

A "monster of the deep."

The last of the Lincolns.

Einstein's forgotten inventions.

How alchemists gave us alcohol.

William Parsons, who probably would have disagreed with the saying that any publicity is good publicity.

Haunted Belgium.

A heroic dog.

The last of the pirates.

Alkemade the Indestructible.

A homicidal genius.

The controversy surrounding a famed French writer.

A newly-exposed underwater ecosystem.

The romantic benefits of snail slime.

Some 18th century French "firsts."

The case of the Littlehampton Libels.

A famed plant researcher.

An ancient "St. Germain."

The world's oldest restaurant.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll look at an unsolved disappearance in an English village.  In the meantime, surf's up!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day, Valentine's Day Edition

I don't know what says "A Strange Company Valentine's Day" more than this news item from the "Fremont [Ohio] News Messenger," February 14, 1976.

Bullets sting a lot more than Cupid's arrows, so Michael J. Hubbard of Akron has decided to call off the wedding.

Hubbard, 31, said Friday from his hospital bed he's decided his marriage plans were definitely off after being shot by girlfriend Rosie Moss, 33, three times in 16 months. Hubbard said the wedding was planned for today in Detroit, but he added, "I'm not getting married now. I'm no fool. I'm tired of getting shot."

Hubbard, who said he and Miss Moss have been living together for several years, was resting comfortably in City Hospital here with a bullet wound in the right leg. He told police he was "coming home and she shot me.. .she put all my clothes in the back yard. I opened the door and got shot."

Police told The Associated Press reports have been filed with them on each of the shootings, but Hubbard decided in each case not to press charges despite their recommendation he do so in the last two incidents.

The first shooting, according to the police, was in November, 1974, when Hubbard was wounded in the neck. Police records show he was shot in the right forearm last July. Miss Moss' only comment on the couple's problems was "he tries to rule, and that don't go." Hubbard said the couple had been "getting along pretty well" since the second shooting, "but I'm moving out now."
That was probably a wise decision. To be honest, I've never been able to say what my "ideal mate" would be like, but I'm pretty certain it wouldn't be someone who repeatedly sends me to the emergency room. One shooting, OK. You could write off a second as "just one of those days." Three such incidents, and you start to get the idea that maybe these two just weren't made for each other.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Talking Cat Fought the Law, and the Law Won

Carl Miles and Blackie

"That a talking cat could generate interest and income is not surprising. Man's fascination with the domestic feline is perennial. People of western cultures usually fall into two categories. Generally, they are ailurophiles or ailurophobes. Cats are ubiquitous in the literature, lore and fiber of our society and language. The ruthless Garfield commands the comic strips, the Cat in the Hat exasperates even Dr. Seuss, and who hasn't heard of Heathcliff, Felix or Sylvester? Historically, calico cats have eaten gingham dogs, we are taught that 'a cat can look at a king' and at least one cat has 'been to London to see the Queen.'

"It is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. To the animal world, I am sure that the sincerest form is anthropomorphosis. The ailurophobes contend that anthropomorphosis abounds, and that it is the work of ailurophiles. The ailurophiles say that they do not anthropomorphize cats but, rather, that cats have such human qualities as they may condescend to adopt for their own selfish purposes. Perhaps such was the case with Saki's ill-fated Tobermory, the cat who knew too much and told all, who, when asked if the human language had been difficult to learn, '... looked squarely at [Miss Resker] for a moment and then fixed his gaze serenely on the middle distance. It was obvious that boring questions lay outside his scheme of life.'

"For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, people have carried on conversations with cats. Most often, these are one-sided and range from cloying, mawkish nonsense to topics of science and the liberal arts. Apparently Blackie's pride does not prevent him from making an occasional response to this great gush of human verbiage, much to the satisfaction and benefit of his 'owners.' Apparently, some cats do talk. Others just grin." 
~District Judge Bowen, from his ruling in Carl M. Miles, et al., Plaintiffs, v. City Council, et al., Defendants, 1982.

Few things make me happier than welcoming a talking cat through the hallowed gates of Strange Company HQ. If this particular feline also happened to shape legal precedent, even better.

The plaintiffs in our little drama were Carl and Elaine Miles, "owners and promoters" of Blackie the Talking Cat. They challenged the constitutionality of Augusta's Business License Ordinance, claiming that it violated the rights of speech and association. In short, the city of Augusta insisted that Blackie, as a professional public speaker, get a business license, and Mr. and Mrs. Miles resented having to pony up the required $50. In their original 1982 suit, the District Judge Bowen ruled in favor of the city. ("The ordinance challenged by the plaintiffs is constitutionally valid depriving them of neither due process nor equal protection. The ordinance is a legitimate, rational means for the generation of revenue for the benefit of the defendant. It does not trammel the fundamental rights of the plaintiffs as guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions.") Carl and Elaine then brought their case to the United States Court of Appeals.

Carl's deposition was introduced into evidence, where he explained Blackie's origins and subsequent rise to fame: "Well, a girl come around with a box of kittens, and she asked us did we want one. I said no, that we did not want one. As I was walking away from the box of kittens, a voice spoke to me and said, 'Take the black kitten.' I took the black kitten, knowing nothing else unusual or nothing else strange about the black kitten. When Blackie was about five months old, I had him on my lap playing with him, talking to him, saying I love you. The voice spoke to me saying, 'The cat is trying to talk to you.' To me, the voice was the voice of God."

Never one to quarrel with the wishes of the Almighty, Miles developed "a rigorous course of speech therapy" for Blackie. Carl explained, "I would tape the sounds the cat would make, the voice sounds he would make when he was trying to talk to me, and I would play those sounds back to him three and four hours a day, and I would let him watch my lips, and he just got to where he could do it.

"He was talking when he was six months old, but I could not prove it then. It was where I could understand him, but you can't understand him. It took me altogether a year and a half before I had him talking real plain where you could understand him."

Blackie hit the show business circuit, with great success. He spoke on radio shows, and made an appearance on the TV series "That's Incredible."  (He also recorded a holiday tune, "A Special Christmas Featuring Blackie the Cat That Talked," and I will never rest until I find a copy.)  This was one performer who truly appreciated his audience, which even included the District Judge, who revealed that one day when he encountered Blackie on the street, he gave the cat a dollar.  In return, Blackie purred, "I love you." (The court noted that "this affectionate encounter occurred before the Judge ruled against Blackie.")

As so often happens to even the most deserving talents, Blackie's nationwide fame began to subside. He was reduced to hanging out on street corners, soliciting contributions from passerby to hear him talk. (We are told that "Blackie would become catatonic and refuse to speak whenever his audience neglected to make a contribution.") Some busybodies went to the Augusta police, complaining that Blackie had no right to act as a professional Talking Cat without the proper paperwork.

The plaintiff's lawyer pointed out that "the Augusta business ordinance contains no category for speaking animals. The ordinance exhaustively lists trades, businesses, and occupations subject to the tax and the amount of the tax to be paid, but it nowhere lists cats with forensic prowess."

The Appellate court ruled against the plaintiffs. The judges pointed out that Blackie spoke in return for money, so therefore these "elocutionary endeavors" were indubitably commercial. In other words, Blackie was certainly a businessman...uh, businesscat, and therefore required a license just like any other Augusta entrepreneur. They also dismissed the argument that Blackie's right to free speech had been infringed upon.   "[A]lthough Blackie arguably possesses a very unusual ability, he cannot be considered a 'person' and is therefore not protected by the Bill of Rights. Second, even if Blackie had such a right, we see no need for appellants to assert his right jus tertii. Blackie can clearly speak for himself."

So this is how Blackie went into legal history as--to the best of my knowledge--the world's first officially licensed talking cat. Unfortunately, he failed to find the lasting fame and fortune he undoubtedly deserved.  In 1989 Carl Miles developed cataracts, and he stopped publicly exhibiting his prized feline, although Blackie was still happy to chat with visitors to the Miles home.

After battling multiple health problems, Blackie passed away in 1992 at the age of 18.  Miles told a reporter that just before the end, the cat looked up at him and said one last time, "I love you."

Friday, February 9, 2018

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is again sponsored by a celebrity cat; namely, this presidential kitten.

Who the hell made these ancient tools?

What the hell happened to Princess Pamela?

Watch out for those cursed houses!

Watch out for those handfuls of dust!

A peek inside the Winchester Mystery House.

18th century tips for cold and flu season.

Ghost towns of the Old West.

A peculiar--and lethal--affair.

The life of an 18th century vicar.

The sad tale of the Buttermere Beauty.

The man who invented radio.  Well, almost.

In search of lost books.

Have we found a habitable planetary system?

All hail the King of the Cats!

My kind of home, sweet home.

A strange death in Pennsylvania: murder, suicide, or accident?

The true story behind a famed centenarian.

The true story behind Burt Reynolds' centerfold.

The true story behind New Zealand's most badass photograph.

The true story behind Britain's Cheddar Man.

A disappearance in the Australian outback.

A 19th century English miscellany.

The trials of an 18th century balloonist.

Not all of the Berlin Wall has come down.

Some wonderful vintage insults.

18th century urban planning.

One celebrity that really is just a big ham.

The grave of a medieval anchoress.

The 19th century really did not like forgers.

Software uncovers an alleged Shakespeare source.

Napoleon's etiquette.

Los Angeles' Great Tin Can Feud.

A Bronze Age hunk.

The last of the sea nomads.

The strange tale of triplets separated at birth.

The first color photos of post-earthquake San Francisco.

The uses of an 18th century apron.

Previously unknown ancient humans in the Americas.

A previously unknown language.

A review of a new book about one of my favorite historical figures, U.S. Grant.

And here's a story about Mrs. Grant and Marie Dressler.

Personally, I like carob, so there.

Music for cats!

Plagiarizing ancient medical devices.

Cross-dressing in Victorian Wales.

An 18th century recidivist.

Napoleon's mom.

That wraps it up for this week.  See you on Monday, when I'll present...



Oh, be still my beating heart.

While we count down the minutes to that post, here's Gordon Lightfoot.