"...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, May 21, 2018

The Road to Fair Elfland: Review of "Magical Folk," Edited by Simon Young and Ceri Houlbrook


"See here, boys, there may be ghosts or there may not; but if there are none, there are fairies, and they are worse."
~One man's understandable reaction to being repeatedly dunked into the Atlantic.

I believe in fairies the same way I believe in Antarctica: I've never seen either in person, but enough seemingly rational people have to convince me of their existence.

I also feel that the fairies--or Brownies, "little people," sprites, pixies, elves, imps, whatever you care to call them--must feel an unimaginable contempt for modern civilization. Consider: for millennia, our ancestors regarded fairies with respect, awe, sometimes deep affection, more often not a little fear. And with good reason: As this book notes, "The fairies...assaulted and tricked and, in some cases, murdered and kidnapped their way through human populations." They were worshiped, placated, grovelled to. Now? They've been degraded into twee, harmless, silly little creatures. Fairies are now cute. And spare a moment of pity for the leprechaun. Imagine going from a mischief-maker with a hidden stash of gold and supernatural powers to a little green guy peddling Lucky Charms cereal.

Possibly for that very reason, few people even believe in them anymore.

Thankfully, antidotes for such puerile drivel are available in the form of books such as "Magical Folk: British and Irish Fairies 500 AD to the Present." This volume brings together contributions by various academics, folklorists, and lay historians addressing various aspects of the astonishingly long and varied reign of these "magical, living, resident humanoids"--a reign that continues to this very day.

The editors kick off the book by addressing the question "What is a fairy, anyway?" (Short answer: "It's complicated,") and offering a helpful guide to the widely varying "Fairy Tribes." Then Jacqueline Simpson addresses the sadly ignored fairy lore of Sussex, complete with the Queen of the Fairies dispensing medical advice and poet William Blake crashing a fairy funeral.

Pollyanna Jones looks at Worcestershire, home of fairies who appear as shape-shifters, or simple blobs of light. The region is known for "Pucks," mischievous tricksters who lead people into ditches or ponds, and other such practical pleasantries. The playful aspect of the local folklore helped inspire J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit." Oh, and if you're ever in Worcestershire, don't swear or use an angry tone of voice. The fairies don't like it.

Mark Norman and Jo Hickey-Hall take us to the rich lore of Devon, where the Magical Folk so predominate they have been classified into distinct types: fairies, imps, sprites, elves and pixies (the last-named are tentatively connected to the ancient Picts.) Like Worcestershire's Puck, pixies are most noted for leading travelers astray. This was such a common occurrence that being "Pixy-led" was an accepted local hazard well into the 19th century. As recently as 2002, a Devon farmer reported seeing a "circle of small green figures" dancing around a fire.

Richard Sugg writes of Yorkshire, where the history is replete with dark tales of "everyday magic," witchcraft, and powerful, often quite frightening fairies. Fittingly enough, this often cold, bleak region has spawned some of Britain's most sinister and enduring fairy legends: "having drunk in fairy beliefs with your mother's milk, you did not easily lose them. Ever after, the fairies were in your head. Day by day, you heard them, sensed them, inferred them from their activities--and sometimes even saw them." Many of the elves were considered "evil spirits." Yorkshire fairies would kidnap human babies, leaving weird "changelings" in their place. Yorkshire is also the home of the "Cottingly Fairies," that curious hoax which is probably fairy-lore's most notorious chapter.

Jeremy Harte examines Dorset's eight-hundred years of fairy history, which as far as is recorded, began with enigmatic beings known as "pucas," probably an ancestor of "Puck." Harte also delves into "cunning folk," those humans who took advice (for both good and ill) from the fairies, as well as the often tense relationship between fairies and Christianity.

Simon Young takes us to Cumbria, which has a lively contemporary fairy population. In the early 1920s, a self-described "fairy seer" recorded seeing brownies, rock gnomes, tree manikins, undines, lake spirits, nature devas, and--last but certainly not least--a god. Some twenty years later, hikers at Borrowdale ran into some fairies playing on the rocks. The area's older fairy history, however, was far grimmer, reflecting the punishing environment endured by the human residents. For these villagers, fairies were dangerous creatures who needed to be held at bay by all the folk cures at human disposal. Young's essay is aimed at reviving these earlier, now largely-forgotten days where Cumbrians faced a world filled with destructive and predatory boggarts, monsters, and demons. (In the 18th century, one parish recorded that within a five-year period, no less than four people had been "frightened to death by the fairies.") On a lighter note, Cumbrian fairies had a particular fondness for butter.

Ireland is arguably the area most people associate with fairies, and not without reason. Jenny Butler's essay explores how deeply the belief in fairies (or, "sidhe") has been woven into Irish history and folklore. To the Irish, fairies are a component of the otherworld, "a supernatural realm that is intertwined with the ordinary sphere in which human beings live." It is--albeit somewhat ambiguously and debatably--identified with the afterlife. It has even been suggested that the sidhe are spirits of the human dead--what are more commonly called "ghosts." So respected and feared are these beings that the Irish hesitated to even mention them by name, preferring to call them "the noble people," or "the good people," or merely "themselves." (Rather like actors who refuse to call "Macbeth" anything other than "The Scottish play.") Any encounters with the fairies were generally believed to be ill-fated in some way or another. Butler notes that even though Ireland has not been immune from the "Disneyfication" of fairies, the "good people" are still a major element of the country's cultural tradition.

Anyone at all familiar with Scottish history knows that it is a deeply weird place. Perhaps the fact that it is packed to the rafters with fairy glens has something to do with it. Ceri Houlbrook takes a tour of this region that has a particular bond with fairy belief--a bond so deep that the Scottish landscape itself is felt to have been a creation of the fairies. (It is believed that a "Fairyland" or "Elfland" still exists somewhere in Scotland, and woe to any mere mortal who accidentally stumbles into this territory.) Of all the areas covered in this book, Scotland's fairy folklore is probably the most voluminous, varied, and enduring. Not to mention the most delightful: among the Scots fairies are such gems as the evil Dame of the Fine Green Kirtle, the equally malevolent Whoopity Stoorie, Habetrot (kindly patron of spinning,) and NicNiven the Fairy Queen. As we have seen in other regions, there is a lack of consensus about what these fairies really are: nature spirits? Gods? Fallen angels? An early race of humans who were the first inhabitants of northern Britain? Some sort of human/angel hybrids? Take your pick. Happily, a belief in fairies is still strong in Scotland, albeit on a more benign level. Children still pay homage to fairy glens so their wishes will come true, and no doubt many still take care not to wander into Elfland.

Moving on to the unique supernatural lore of Orkney and Shetland, Laura Coulson informs us that the region's most notable "fairies" are those curious beings known as "trows," melancholy human-like beings who are apt to kidnap women and children and steal cattle. They are also referred to as the "grey folk." Trows had an extensive mythology, covering everything from their marriage and family rituals to their Yuletime celebrations. Sadly, in recent years it is believed the trows have abandoned the Orkney Isles. Life has become too modern on the islands, forcing them to retreat to the Dwarfie Stone on Hoy. More unsettlingly, other traditions say all the trows drowned! Either way, the Orkneys are surely a duller place without them.

Wales, as one sixteenth-century man noted, is a land where the people have "an astonishing reverence of the fairies." The country has always been full of all sorts of supernatural beings of the best sort, but you can barely swing a stick in Wales without hitting a fairy. Richard Suggett's essay examines the Welsh history of these sprites, who were apparently as enigmatic and difficult to categorize as they were terrifying. Welsh fairies tend to take so many forms, they defy easy description. Welsh folklore also has humans seeing fairies much more often than legends of most other areas. Suggett notes the "rather prosaic, everyday quality" of Welsh fairy/human interactions, and adds that "Fairies were encountered in everyday circumstances as people went about their usual business and some people claimed to have had numerous encounters with the fairies." Naturally, many Welsh considered themselves to be "experts" on the fairies. "Enchanters," who helped their fellow humans cope with the sprites, was a popular occupation. One Elizabethan-era writer commented that Wales contained "swarmes of southsaiers and enchanters" who bragged about their frequent communion with fairies. Suggett also provides a handy tip for dealing with any Welsh fairies you might encounter: they are repelled by iron. (On the other hand, the metal is a powerful attraction for ghosts. It's literally a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't.)

Francesca Bihet contributes a look at the fairy culture of the Channel Islands. These sprites, known to islanders as "les p'tites gens" ("the little people,") "faiteaux," or simply "dames," are believed to inhabit the islands' many prehistoric sites, which, according to folklore, they themselves built long before the islands were inhabited by humans. In fact, the ancient monuments are commonly called "pouquelaye," or "fairy place." The fairies are also said to have dug a network of tunnels connecting the various "fairy places." The fairies emerge from these underground passages at night to dance under the full moon. Unsurprisingly, it's considered to be extremely unlucky for humans to meddle in any way with these ancient sites.

Stephen Miller's look at the Isle of Man's fairy-lore focuses on the work of the Early Modern writer George Waldron, whose 1731 "A Description of the Isle of Man," contains the first comprehensive collection of Manx folklore. As is the case with the folk beliefs of the Channel Islands, the Manx believe fairies were the original settlers of the Island. Manx refer to them as "the Good People," and say they still live in forests and wilderness, shunning cities "because of the Wickedness acted therein." Manx believe that any house visited by the fairies is blessed, because the beings "fly Vice." Unlike most other regions, the fairies of Manx are loved and welcomed by humans, as they "never come without bringing good Fortune along with them." Despite this, there are still the usual stories about fairies replacing babies with "changelings," kidnapping adults, and even riding mortals' horses during the night.

Ronald M. James deals with the "piskies and knockers" that make life a great deal more interesting for the human residents of Cornwall. Other terms for Cornish fairies are "pobel vean" ("small people,") spriggans, buccas, and brownies. Cornish fairies are a mix or good or bad. While their human neighbors feared them, they also hoped that the piskies could be propitiated into doing them favors. The fairies are invariably described as being tiny, large in number, and often very well dressed. The most well-known Cornish fairies are the "underground knockers," the beings who haunt the region's many mines.

Peter Muise contributes a look at the fairies of New England. Curiously enough, fairy sightings in that area have only really become popular in recent years. Presumably, the fairies (commonly known in New England as ""Pukwidgies") had no desire to hang around those stern early Puritans, and who can really blame them? Historians have also speculated that as fairies tend to be associated with ancient features of the British landscape, when the Puritans emigrated to the New World, they left the fairy folk of the Old World behind. However, anthropologists and historians have documented a rich and ancient fairy belief among New England's Native American tribes, so it could be said that the region has long been populated with fairies, but the white settlers simply ignored them until modern times. The good news is that, according to James, New England fairy sightings are returning with a vengeance. Recent stories contributed to the Fairy Census include six-fingered humanoids, a little creature made of vegetation, and tiny fairies with dragonfly wings.

Although Canada as a whole has scant fairy folklore, the notable exceptions are the coastal settlements of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Labrador, north-eastern Quebec, and Newfoundland. Simon Young describes these Canadian fairies as a "melting-pot," "a minestrone of different traditions with ingredients coming from different parts of the Old World." Young notes that Atlantic Canadian fairies (known as "good people," "bad people," "little people," lutins, leprechauns, "devil's angels," or "co-pixies") are a particularly alarming lot: "[these] fairies were terrifying, even by the standards of their European confreres." If you are unfortunate enough to encounter a Newfoundland fairy, be prepared to have your tongue pulled out, your eyes gouged out, and your fingernails removed. If they're feeling benevolent, the little folk might merely trick you into getting lost in the woods or toss you into a whirlwind. Harsh climates seem to breed a harsh race of fairies. So pervasive is the largely malign influence of these "little people," that in one notable instance, they wound up in court. In 1880, a man excused himself from missing several days of work by explaining that he had been kidnapped by fairies. And he won his case! (So next time you're late for work, feel free to use the "I was abducted by co-pixies" line to the boss.) Newfoundland fairy lore, Young notes, has been particularly persistent and long-lasting. He dubs the area's supernatural beings, "The Last Traditional Fairies."

In the book's final essay, Chris Woodyard examines how Irish fairylore was transplanted to the New World, where this fresh soil caused the fairies to sprout in some strange new ways. Irish-American fairies take the form of spook lights, "leaping fiends with luminous eyes," will-o'-the-wisps, women in white, and "the odd leprechaun story." Even the traditional banshee and changeling baby make an occasional appearance in 19th century reports. The oddest story Woodyard presents is a baffling news report of a young woman who was kidnapped by fairies, never to be seen again...in 1876 Dubuque, Iowa, surely the last place one would expect to see marauding Little Folk. (This story has certain elements of modern-day reports of Men in Black sightings and alien abductions, reminding me that it would have been interesting to end this volume with a piece analyzing the similarities between historical "fairy sightings" and today's extraterrestrial "close encounters.")

"Magical Folk" is both impressively scholarly and highly entertaining, and I strongly recommend it for anyone with the slightest interest in folklore--or even just a liking for history's stranger corners. It does a wonderful job of documenting how the fairy legends of different regions are similar in so many respects, while displaying their own quaint and distinctive features.

In fact, the book is so comprehensive that I fear its contributors are in danger of meeting the same fate as our old friend Robert Kirk.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.  And his cat.

Particularly his cat.









Who the hell was D.B. Cooper?  The question is probably as futile as the ever-popular "Who the hell was Jack the Ripper?"

Watch out for those hungry ghosts!

Watch out for those haunted bodies of water!

Jane Austen's aunt was someone straight out of a Jane Austen novel.

Royal wedding superstitions.

A history of royal weddings at Windsor Castle.  (Just out of curiosity, are any of you planning to watch Saturday's wedding?  I had no interest at all in the nuptials until I discovered that the bride's family are a right bunch of nutters, oddballs, and publicity hounds who all seem to hate her guts.  So now I'm thinking this whole shebang might prove to be a lot of fun.)

Speaking of which, this is how to do a royal wedding.

Some mystery surrounds an ancient cremation site.

Ukrainian spy dolphins come to a sad end.

A murderer fails to find sanctuary.

Chocolate champions of the 18th century.

Royal weddings in Georgian times.

The Poison Squad.

A mysterious shipwreck.

Britain's grandest ghostbuster.

Why you wouldn't want to drink 19th century milk unless you knew it  came straight from the cow.

The world's oldest library.

The gambler who found the horse racing code.

The painful life and death of an "infamous prostitute."

Merlin and Uther Pendragon.

The fictional "Mysteries" of New York.

The 1975 disappearance of four-year-old Kurt Newton.

The link between Aleister Crowley, John Dee, and Loch Ness.

The Monster of Kirkthorp.

The notorious Villisca Ax Murders.

An eyewitness description of the early 19th century Habsburg Empire.

Pro tip: if you use magic to remove impediments, make sure the impediment isn't you.

Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, pen pals.

Ancient Octopus Aliens!

A new look at an old portrait.

An Anglo-Saxon charm to cure infections.

Celebrating a renowned bibliophile and librarian.

Documenting ancient Nubia.

An ancient city has been uncovered in Iraq.

A political activist and an actress in 18th century France.

Jonathan Salmon, who had the misfortune to become a 19th century Jonah.

Some recently uncovered lines from Anne Frank's diary.

Clergy in the Georgian era.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris: don't try swallowing a live mouse.  You won't like it.  Neither will the mouse.

The diary of an 18th century stonemason.

An all-female Ponzi scheme.

The details of a dinner party held May 13, 1431.

The odd craze for "hat moving."

A real-life Sherlock Holmes.

Ghosts travel fast, but never arrive.

And so we say goodbye for this week. See you on Monday, when we'll be talking British fairies and folklore. As something of a warmup, here's this post on fairy changelings.  In the meantime, here's Johann Quantz:

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This Strange Company-worthy scene of domestic bliss comes from the "New Castle Herald," May 16, 1914

It is not often that real life supplies the peculiar sort of plot required in the hair-raising plays which have made the Theatre Grand Guignol of Paris, famous the world over. Yet a divorce case just tried in Stockholm, Sweden, presented evidence that shows a faithless wife and her male accomplice to have figured in scenes that could hardly be improved upon. 
Divorce court records reveal many ingenious ruses whereby wives and husbands have secured evidence of the faithlessness of their wedded partners; but this appears to be the first instance of a husband accomplishing such a feat by having himself pronounced dead and placed in a coffin ready for burial. 
That is the feat that was successfully performed by Karl Petersen, a well-to-do citizen of the Swedish capital. Upon evidence thus obtained the court granted him a divorce from the handsome woman to whom he had been married barely a year. 
Owing to her beauty and many charming accomplishments, Mrs. Petersen’s former suitors and admirers were not altogether discouraged by the fact of her marriage to one of the wealthiest merchants of Stockholm. Several of them became frequent guests at the Petersen home. One in particular–a certain dashing young society man named Swen Egstrom. 
Several months ago Petersen became suspicious that Egstrom was exceeding his duties as bundle-carrier and general utility man about the house. In fact, he more than half believed that the bond between his charming bride and Egstrom was of a nature that was reflecting upon his own honor. Petersen vainly endeavored to prove or disprove his suspicions, and then resolved upon spinning the strangest web in which an erring wife ever was entangled. 
He feigned illness and made that an excuse to go to his country house for a few day’s rest away from the business and social whirl of the metropolis. He was accompanied only by two or three old and confidential servants. 
The day after his arrival in the country, Petersen took to his bed and quietly summoned his confidential physician, to whom he stated his suspicions and outlined the details of his plan. The physician’s sympathies were with the husband. 
“For a beginning,” said Petersen, “I want you to telegraph to my wife, saying that I am dying.” 
“I will do that, willingly,” said the physician. “And I will manage to make you appear as dead as you are supposed to be, when the time comes. But I can’t see my way clear to signing any death certificate.” 
“How long can you defer your official report of my death?” inquire Petersen. 
“Will forty-eight hours be long enough?” 
“Ample,” said Petersen. “I have reason to believe that within twenty-four hours after you have pronounced me dead my wife’s paroxysms of grief will have subsided sufficiently to allow her to give me all the evidence I need.” 
The physician sent the telegram in the afternoon, and a few hours later received Mrs. Petersen’s answer that she would take the first train and reach her husband’s bedside on the next afternoon. 
Petersen’s “illness” had an alarming change for the worse at midnight. At dawn the physician announced to the sorrowing servants that their master had passed away. The butler alone was in the conspiracy, for reasons that will become obvious. But he was naturally melancholy and, therefore, needed to add merely a touch more of solemnity to his features. 
Petersen being of spare build and entirely without color in face or hands, it was a simple matter for the physician to add the corpse-like chill and rigidity that would deceive any ordinary beholder. He also undertook the “setting” of a scene in the library that would give the suspected wife every opportunity to betray herself. 
A handsome burial casket had been timed to arrive before noon. This was placed on trestles in the library within a yard or two of a desk, on which was a telephone.
The physician took upon himself the duties of undertaker. Aided by the undeceived butler, he prepared Petersen’s corpse-like body for burial and placed it in the casket, Mrs. Petersen arrived escorted by the faithful Egstrom. The physician met them at the door. 
“My poor, dear husband!” said the wife. “Do tell me that he is better.” 
“Your poor husband suffered very little,” said the physician. 
“Oh, he’s dead! My darling husband is dead!” exclaimed Mrs. Petersen. 
The physician conducted the sorrowing wife into the library. He received her fainting form in his arms–for one glance at the white face in the coffin assured her that fainting was now in order. 
Mrs. Petersen did not leave her room that night. Egstrom retired early to the chamber allotted to him. 
The butler busied himself in the kitchen behind closed doors preparing a nourishing broth that could be safely taken by a dead man without bringing any tint of life to his cheeks. 
The physician watched beside the coffin. Toward midnight he was awakened by a loud yawn. For a moment, confused by drowsiness, he was startled at the sight of Petersen sitting up in his coffin and drumming impatiently on its lid with his fingers. 
“Did she come?” asked Petersen, who, in the interests of the conspiracy, had lain all this time unconscious under the influence of a drug. 
“She came,” said the physician. “When she gazed on your dead face she fainted. We took her to her room, and she hasn’t left it since. Egstrom was with her, of course.” 
“Did the fellow stay?” asked the “corpse,” eagerly. 
“He did. We dined together and he recalled all your excellent qualities.” 
“Good,” said the corpse. “There won’t be any more attention paid to me–not until I play my little joker.” 
Petersen was restless in his narrow quarters, and to get out to stretch his legs and to get back in again would disarrange the coffin’s upholstery. So he suggested a game of cribbage. 
“I’ll play you for the amount of your bill,” he said with a grim smile. 
“Which bill? Doctor or undertaker?” 
“Both, in their natural order,” Petersen came back at the facetious physician. 
In the morning, the butler entered noiselessly and whispered; 
“Mr. Egstrom is up, ready for breakfast. Mrs. Petersen has ordered her breakfast in her room, sir.” 
The corpse bobbed down into its coffin, white hands folded across his breast. The doctor threw himself into an easy chair, puffing furiously on a fresh cigar to account for the unfunereal atmosphere of the room. 
But these precautions proved unnecessary. The Petersen country house being isolated, there were no callers. Mrs. Petersen and Egstrom went out for a drive immediately after breakfast. Mrs. Petersen was sure that the doctor would make all arrangements. She was “too overcome to be of any use.” She and her “kind escort” probably would not return until evening. 
“Good Lord!” sighed the corpse. “Another night of it.” 
But he stuck to his resolution not to risk anything by getting out of his coffin. 
Mrs. Petersen and Egstrom took breakfast together the following morning in the small breakfast room adjoining the library. Petersen could hear their cheerful conversation.
After breakfast the unsuspecting couple entered the library, carefully closing the door after them. They barely glanced at the coffin, never once looking inside, where Petersen lay with a most undeathlike flush of exasperation on his countenance. 
Mrs. Petersen went directly to the telephone. Petersen heard her call up one of his most intimate business associates in tones that were so cheerful as to be almost gay she announced the joyous fact of her husband’s death. 
“The will leaves everything to me, you know,” telephoned Mrs. Petersen. “I shall be rich–and you know what that means, naughty boy!” 
Petersen could hardly restrain himself. It was lucky he did, for now he heard the vice of Egstrom tenderly rebuking Mrs. Petersen for holding out false hopes to the “fool at the other end of the wire.” 
“La, la! Let me have my little joke with the old reprobate,” said Mrs. Petersen. “You know, Duckie, that I love no one but you, and never have.” 
“You darling!” 
These two words were uttered in the voice of Egstrom. 
Petersen sat up in his coffin. Mrs. Petersen and Egstrom, not two yards away, were clasped in each other’s arms. 
At that instant the butler entered. The exposure was complete, witness included. 
“Caught!” thundered the corpse, with bony finger pointed at the deceitful couple. 
Mrs. Petersen, beholding the fearsome spectacle of her departed husband sitting up in his coffin and so justly denouncing her, fainted in dead earnest. 
Egstrom was so scared that he let her fall to the floor. Then he ran from the room and dashed, hatless, from the house. 

Petersen crawled out of the coffin and carried Mrs. Petersen to her room and sent for a physician–for truly she needed one. 
When Petersen had regaled himself with a bath and a large steak with plenty of fried potatoes, he went back to the city and started divorce proceedings. 

The divorced Mrs. Petersen is living in strict retirement. It is reported that the shocking scene of her departed husband sitting up in his coffin to accuse her had transformed her from a beauty into a nerve-racked old woman.

So, ladies, the moral is clear: Before you start in on your merry widowhood, make very, very sure your beloved husband is not just dead, but safely six feet under. Otherwise, nasty surprises may be in store.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Send Lawyers, Ghosts, and Money

Tales of haunted houses are generally found in collections of ghost stories, journals devoted to psychic phenomena, and Gothic novels. Finding one enshrined in legal history is a rare treat. Such was the unusual honor given to the Nyack, New York home of Helen Ackley.



From the time when Ackley first moved into her 18-room Victorian estate overlooking the Hudson River, she knew it was inhabited by ghosts. Light fixtures would mysteriously sway back and forth. Spectral footsteps could be heard throughout the estate. These unusually generous poltergeists would sometimes even leave little items dating from the Victorian era for the Ackley family, such as a silver ring and sugar tongs. In the mornings, the ghosts would act as alarm clocks, shaking the beds of the Ackley children when it was time for them to get up. (On one occasion, Helen's daughter Cynthia loudly informed the ghosts that she was on spring break, so she did not need to get up early. The bed-shaking stopped.)

"It is an ongoing thing," Ackley said in 1982. "After 15 years here, I'm not afraid. They are very friendly, and I have no desire to get rid of them. After all, they've probably been here a lot longer than I have." Ackley came to think of the ghosts almost as family. "I feel that they are very good friends," she commented. "It's very comforting to have them around when you are by yourself." She believed that the ghosts consisted of a young Revolutionary-era naval lieutenant, a young woman, and an older man in Colonial-era clothing. Ackley took a certain pride in living in a haunted house. In May 1977, she even wrote a "Reader's Digest" article about her friends the spooks.

Life went on very pleasantly for the Ackleys and their ghost tenants until August 1989, when the family put the house up for sale. It quickly found a buyer in one Jeffrey Stambovsky, who made a down payment of $32, 500 for the $650,000 house. It was only then that Stambovsky learned he was also buying a trio of ghosts.

Stambovsky, sadly, did not share Ackley's affection for poltergeists. He had a narrow-minded aversion against being haunted. In short, while he had no general prejudice against houseguests, he insisted that they all be very much alive. The disgruntled buyer, declaring that he was the victim of "ectoplasmic fraud," filed suit asking that his contract to purchase the house be canceled. For good measure, he sued Ackley and her realtor for fraudulent representation. After all, as one of Stambovsky's lawyers pointed out, others might not share Ackley's harmonious relations with the ghosts. "They might not like it if she moves." Another of the plaintiff's attorneys added, "Would you want to bump into George Washington in the middle of the night?"

In March 1990, State Supreme Court Justice Edward Lehner sided with the defendants. He ruled that Ackley was under no legal obligation to tell Stambovsky the house was haunted. Lehner stated that Stambovsky, in trying to get out of his contract, was in default and not entitled to the return of his down payment. "It is clear that in New York the doctrine of caveat emptor still holds sway in real estate transactions," Lehner said. Although he acknowledged that a house's reputation could affect its market value, Ackley was not required to disclose "her beliefs with respect to supernatural inhabitants, nor to disclose the articles written about her house." Ackley, who planned to move to Florida, told reporters that she would be happy to take the ghosts off Stambovsky's hands. "If they want to come with me, I'd be glad to have them," she said cheerfully.

Stambovsky appealed the decision. The Appellate Division of New York's Supreme Court agreed with him. In July 1991, they ruled that Stambovsky could sue to recover his deposit. The court said that Ackley "had deliberately fostered the public belief that her home was possessed," and had "no less a duty" to tell buyers about the ghosts. The court pointed out that although the doctrine of "caveat emptor" would normally apply, ghosts were not a condition that any potential buyer could be expected to ascertain upon normal inspection of the property. "The most meticulous inspection and the search would not reveal the presence of poltergeists at the premises or unearth the property's ghoulish reputation in the community." Additionally, Ackley had obviously not delivered on her promise to leave the premises "vacant." "As a matter of law," the court sternly ruled, "the house is haunted." Stambovsky eventually got back half his deposit.

Ackley, who had since sold the home to another buyer and was now living in Orlando, sadly told reporters that her pet ghosts had not followed her to Florida. "I guess they decided to stay where they were," she sighed. "They did seem pretty put out when we left." After Helen died in 2003, her son-in-law predicted that her spirit would return to Nyack and her ghost friends. Unfortunately, the subsequent owners of the house have not reported any spirit activity. It is unrecorded if they are relieved or disappointed.

The lesson to be learned here is obvious: as the state of New York has ruled that ghosts legally exist, if your house is haunted, make sure any potential buyers know about it well in advance. Do not be shy about your ghosts. Proudly shout the news about this extra added attraction from the rooftops.

Helen Ackley learned the hard way that there is one thing much scarier than any phantom: Lawyers.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Weekend Link Dump



This week's Link Dump is sponsored by the official Strange Company police lineup!






What the hell are the carved stone balls of Scotland?

How the hell did Saladin die?

If you're a bilious noble, watch out for those bread crusts!

Watch out for those haunted forests!

Watch out for Gliese 710!

A wronged husband's bloody revenge.

19th century exercise programs for women.

Captain Cook's house, then and now.

A 19th century dog cemetery.

How a first-century Pope allegedly wound up in the trash bin.

Man is bamboozled by fortune teller.  World's sympathy goes to fortune teller.

Of all the ways you don't want to be executed, this is probably at the top of the list.

Hunter S. Thompson was a wild and crazy guy.  But I guess you didn't need a new book to tell you that.

A fountain that is a tribute to a dog.

The Irish rebels who fought for Israel.

A bit of real estate with a long history.

Beau Brummell, the first metrosexual.

Publicity stunt of the week.

How to eat like a Templar.

Ivan the Terrible's lost library.

Victorian etiquette for breaking engagements.

Using a Ouija board to solve a murder.

A nearly century-old disappearance may be solved.

Corporal punishment in Victorian England.

A wingless Queen Bee gets her own hotel.  No, I'm describing the story quite literally.

A famed "silhouette artist."

If you're keeping a scorecard on human feet being washed up in British Columbia, it's time for an update.

Yes, there is a machine that resuscitates canaries.

Just so you know that people are spending their lives arguing about how many spaces to put after a period.

The rise and fall of the Queen of the Moulin Rouge.

Who doesn't love haunted asylums?

Shorter version: your salad sees you as the enemy.

The funeral service of a police dog.

The Robin Hood of Ceylon.

The bad news: we're not finding MH370.  The good news: we're finding a whole lot of other stuff.

Dolphins are searching for alien life.

Carnivore horses.

Medieval fitness programs.

A mysterious case of attempted murder.

An ancient carriage burial.

Holidays of old London.

Daniel Defoe on ghosts.

Elvis Presley's senior prom.

Napoleon's favorite actor.

Ghosts give racing tips.

That's all for this week!  See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at the legal hazards involving haunted real estate.  In the meantime, let's consider the cat, Jeoffry:


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Newspaper Clipping of the Day



Oh, those gossipy Ouija boards.  The "Chicago Tribune," January 18, 1920:
You may have beard of the oulja board, that weird piece of polished wood embellished with all the letters and all the numerals and the words ''yes" and "no" and "paltented."

You move a heart shaped "planchette" delicately over its surface, and the spirits guide it to the letters that spell out the answer to your question. It's the "Yes, Yes" board, "oui" being French. and ja German. But you ask it "Am I going to get a million dollars?" and it always says "No."

The new bungalow of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Yost in Lockport, Ill., is furnished with one of these boards. The Yosts go in quite a bit for spiritualism and belong to a spiritualistic society.

Mr. and Mrs. Yost and Mr. and Mrs. Frank Walter, all of Lockport, were the best of friends until recently. They belong to old families, attend the same lodges, church, parties, and all that sort of thing.

So the other day when Mrs. Walter announced her candidacy for oracle of the Royal Neighbors' lodge what was more natural than that she should look to her friend, Mrs. Yost, for support? And to her surprise Mrs. Yost opposed her, and was elected!

Mrs. Walter immediately set about to learn the cause of this peculiar act. Now suppose we hurl the rest of the yarn bluntly at the reader by saying:

On the night of Nov. 15 the new bungalow of the Yosts at Lockport was entered by burglars, and looted of a small sum of money, a bunch of groceries, and twenty-five pounds of raisins.

On Thanksgiving night the Yosts invited a party of friends. and during the evening they brought out their ouija board to entertain the crowd. Some one asked the board, "Who burgled our house?"

The planchette hesitated, it is declared, and then spelled out, "The Walter family."

It was not long after this that Mrs. Yost was elected oracle in her lodge, defeating her former friend, Mrs. Walter, and all Lockport began to talk, especially about the twenty-five pounds of raisins, and their probable use in this dry weather. Mrs. Walter, having heard these stories, visited her attorney, William R. McCabe. He---

Well, Mrs. Frank Walter of Lockport yesterday started suit for $10,000 damages against Mr. and Mrs. Albert Yost, her neighbors. and their ouija board, charging slander.

The sequel was recorded in the "Independence Daily Reporter," April 15, 1921.
The ouija board, queer little table which scampers back and forth across the alphabet, spelling out the distant and past and the dim future has no standing in a court of law. Any advice it gives is not slanderous.

These questions were decided yesterday when Mrs. Frank Walters lost the $10,000 slander suit which she had instituted against Mrs. Albert Yost.

Mrs. Walters charged that Mrs. Yost had circulated stories to the effect that the ouija board had revealed her as the robber who entered the Yost home last fall and stole several pounds of sugar, raisins and potatoes.

Judge De Selm, in the circuit court here, instructed the jury that if Mrs. Yost said the ouija board had revealed Mrs. Walters as the alleged robber, Mrs. Yost was not guilty. If Mrs. Yost made the remarks herself, however, and neglected to quote ouija, Mrs. Walters might collect.

While the courtroom, crowded with friends of the two women, both of whom are socially prominent in Lockport, waited, the jury deliberated and at the end of two hours brought in a verdict of not guilty. Mrs. Walters says she will appeal.
"Santa Cruz Evening News," April 27, 1921


As far as I can tell from the newspapers, the matter ended there.  So there you have it. According to U.S. law, you can say anything you like about your neighbors, provided a Ouija board said it first.

I'd like to ask Ouija a few questions myself. Such as, "Who in God's name wants twenty-five pounds of raisins?"

Monday, May 7, 2018

Woodcock's Wooing: A Case of Mad Love




That peculiar aberration we now call "stalking"--or to use the clinical term, "ertomania," is the wholly unfounded delusion that a particular person is wildly in love with you. Any effort by the victim of this obsession to prove that such is not the case only seems to fuel, not dampen, the ertomaniac's ardor. Persons suffering from this disorder are remarkably creative in inventing reasons why the adored object is merely hiding their true feelings. Ertomania is often alarmingly persistent and untreatable.

Modern-day stories of "celebrity stalkers" cause us to overlook the fact that this is hardly a new form of mental illness. In fact, one of the most notable "stalkers" made life hell for one unfortunate young woman back in the mid 19th century.

When you discover that someone earned the nickname "Woodcock," because it was so difficult for people to shoot him, you surmise that you have come across someone with a novel and striking personality. John Rutter Carden certainly lived up to those expectations. In 1811, Carden was born at his family's Tipperary home, Barnane Castle. After being educated for some years in England, he returned to claim his Irish estates.

A 19th century view of Barnane Castle


He discovered that the properties had sadly declined. During Carden's absence, the tenants on his lands had felt free to stop paying rent, and they saw no reason why they should start now. Carden ordered them to either pay up or leave, but most declined to do either one. War quite literally broke out between the two factions, complete with Carden installing a cannon on the castle roof. (It was during these battles that our hero earned his unusual nom de guerre.)

Happily, a peaceful resolution was eventually reached. His tenants eventually learned that, other than his dismaying predilection for collecting rent, he was a decent enough landlord by the standards of the day. Despite the fact that he was the county's magistrate and deputy-lieutenant--positions of authority that seldom lead to general popularity--he was well-liked by his neighbors. For some years, his life in the Irish countryside jogged along very prosperously and peacefully. Woodcock Carden, in short, seemed like the last man in the world to qualify as Strange Company fodder.

Of course, you never know when people might surprise you.

Although Carden went through his share of love affairs--women generally found him attractive--by the time he entered his forties he was still a bachelor, and evidently felt little need to marry. He liked women, but had yet to love any of them. Then, in July 1852, some friends of his named Bagwell invited him to their estate, Eastwood, in County Cork. This would prove to be a visit that would change the course of his life and win him a curious place in Irish history.

Among the other visitors at Eastwood were a Mrs. George Gough and her two orphaned sisters, Laura and Eleanor Arbuthnot. Eighteen-year-old Eleanor was like a heroine from a Jane Austen novel: Pretty, intelligent, wealthy, charming, warmhearted, and both innocent and spirited. All that was needed was for a Mr. Darcy or Colonel Brandon to fall hopelessly in love with her.

Eleanor Arbuthnot.  (H/t to Twitter's @litrvixen for bringing this portrait--as well as the above image of Carden--to my attention.)


Unfortunately for her, what she got instead was Woodcock. Although neither Eleanor or her family took any particular interest in Carden, he instantly became violently smitten with the girl. Before his visit was over, he begged Mrs. Gough for her young sister's hand in marriage. She issued a prompt and firm refusal. Mrs. Gough pointed out that Eleanor was too young to think of marriage, and in any case, she showed no particular liking for him. She told Carden to just forget about Eleanor and move on.



This was the absolute last thing Carden intended to do. Woodcock had managed to unalterably convince himself that Eleanor was secretly infatuated with him, but maidenly modesty kept her from admitting as much. At first, he saw her family as working to poison her mind against him. This later grew into the conviction that her relatives were holding her prisoner, and Eleanor was desperately waiting for him to rescue her. Carden wrote Eleanor a letter proposing they elope. The shocked--and rather disgusted--girl showed this note to her family. The outraged Goughs sent a response ordering Carden never to communicate with any of them again. Eleanor herself wrote a reply stating that she would never forgive him for this "insulting proposition."

Baffled and embarrassed by the rebuff, Woodcock scarcely knew what to do next. He even considered moving to the West Indies to try to escape his humiliation. Most unfortunately for all concerned, he did no such thing. Instead, his increasingly fixated mind came up with a plan that would, he felt sure, free Eleanor from her family's domination and enable Miss Arbuthnot to finally reveal her hidden passion for him.

He decided there was nothing to be done except kidnap the girl.

In the autumn of 1853, he felt he had finally found his opportunity. While traveling to Scotland to stay with a friend, Lord Hill, who lived on the isle of Skye, fate placed him on the same boat as Eleanor and her family, who were traveling to a ball at Inverness. When he learned of their destination, he immediately changed his own travel plans and followed them to the party, essentially gate-crashing the event. He did not try to speak to Eleanor, but he followed her around and stared at her in a most unnerving fashion.

He decided that Inverness would be the site of Eleanor's "liberation." He intended to grab her away from the Goughs and use relays of horses to take her to the coast of Galway. There, a yacht would be waiting to sail them to Skye, where, so he fondly imagined, Lord Hill would be willing to shelter them.

While waiting to have his newly-acquired yacht fitted out in suitably bridal elegance, Carden occupied his time by making a thorough pest of himself. When Eleanor and her family traveled to Paris, Carden ruined their vacation by trailing their every move. No matter where they went, there was Woodcock, staring and peeping and languishing.

After everyone had returned to Ireland, Carden learned that his scheme would have to be delayed: Eleanor had fallen from a horse, breaking one of her ankles. During her recuperation, Carden frantically nagged mutual acquaintances for updates about her condition. He had gotten it into his head that Eleanor's relatives were preventing her from receiving proper care.

Early in 1854, Carden learned that Eleanor's brother William was going to India, and that Eleanor was going to accompany him for part of the journey. Woodcock saw this as his golden opportunity. Unlike the rest of Eleanor's family, William Arbuthnot had always been friendly to Carden, and Woodcock hoped the young man might be sympathetic to the planned abduction. As it happened, however, by the time William was ready to leave, Eleanor's ankle had not healed, forcing her to remain at home.

Time for Plan B. Carden made one last effort to obtain Eleanor's hand in a conventional fashion. He wrote the Goughs offering to give the family his entire fortune if they would only consent to letting him wed Eleanor. This mad idea was treated with the scorn it deserved, leaving Carden feeling he had no choice but to resort to drastic measures.

All was soon made ready. The yacht was waiting off Galway. Horses had been placed along the road to the coast. Carden had enlisted a small private army--consisting of the strongest, most loyal men on his estate--to assist in the abduction. He had even thought to provide a vial of chloroform, in case Eleanor's nerves were upset by the kidnapping.

On July 2, 1854, Eleanor and her two sisters, along with the family governess, a Miss Lyndon, set off for church, about a mile from their house. Carden quietly followed them. After the service, the women were riding home in their carriage when they noticed that Woodcock was following them on horseback. By this point, the family was so used to him mooning about, that they initially paid little attention to the intrusion.

They soon learned that this time was very different. Several men suddenly leaped into the road, forcing their carriage to stop. The men grabbed the horses' heads, cut the reins, and threatened the carriage driver with their knives. Meanwhile, Carden dismounted and ran to the carriage, intending to pull Eleanor from the vehicle. Miss Lyndon, who happened to be seated near the door, pummeled Carden with her fists until his face was bloody. He yanked her out and threw her to the side of the road. Carden's henchmen, assuming she was the target of the abduction, began pulling Miss Lyndon into the brougham Carden had lying in wait.

Before the governess could be kidnapped--a fiasco that, Carden later said dryly, would have been a "just punishment" for him--men from the Gough estate arrived on the scene and joined in the battle against the attacking party. Carden had almost managed to pry the screaming, struggling Eleanor from her carriage when someone struck him a paralyzing blow to the head. When more of Gough's men appeared, Carden knew the battle was lost, and he ordered his forces to retreat. The would-be kidnappers rode hard for home, with the Gough faction--soon to be joined by the police--in hot pursuit.

The chase lasted for some twenty miles before Carden and his men were overtaken. Although the fugitives put up a fierce fight, they were badly outnumbered, and they soon found themselves in custody. Carden expected to face not just failure, but social ruin and, very possibly, the standard sentence for abduction, which was transportation for life.

Instead, he found himself a public hero. Crowds--largely of women--surrounded his prison to cheer him. His peers among the gentry considered Carden's escapade to be a grand romantic adventure, a jolly bit of wooing that had deserved better success. When he went on trial for abduction, attempted abduction, and felonious assault, it was the social event of the year. All of Irish high society fought for seats in the courtroom. The legal show beat opening night at the opera all hollow.

The dramatic highlight of the spectacle came when Eleanor herself took the stand. Carden had instructed his attorneys not to badger his lady love with any questions, but the defense still managed to get her to reveal a vital legal point: Carden had not succeeded in removing her from the carriage. Carden's lawyers used this to argue that no actual abduction had taken place.

The jury--which shared in the near-universal public adulation of the defendant--readily acquitted him of abduction. They had no choice but to find him guilty of the lesser charge of attempted abduction, earning Carden a sentence of two years hard labor. Jurors also absolved him of assault, a verdict which inspired a prolonged round of cheering among the spectators. Despite a few disapproving comments in the Irish newspapers--one editorial grumbled that Carden "stands more in need of a straight-waistcoat than of a wife"--Woodcock emerged from his trial as the people's idol. The public found Eleanor's antipathy to becoming the wife of this dashing fellow to be quite inexplicable.

Inevitably, having this level of general support did absolutely nothing to cure Carden's near-fatal attraction. He left prison in 1856 as determined as ever to marry Eleanor. He traveled all the way to India, simply to try and enlist William Arbuthnot's help in winning her over, but that young man wisely declined. Carden then petitioned the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who kindly but firmly advised him to find a bride he did not have to kidnap. Although he claimed to be terribly regretful about all the trouble he had brought to Eleanor, he failed to do the one thing that would show true remorse: namely, leave her the hell alone. For years, he would continue to stalk her. Wherever she went, in Ireland, England, Scotland or the Continent, Eleanor would find a silent shadow trailing her movements. Carden rarely tried approaching her; settling for lingering in her general vicinity. Eleanor must have felt like she was being haunted by a ghost, although I'm sure she would have found a spectral stalker far preferable. When he wasn't trailing after Eleanor, Carden lived in solitary splendor at Barnane. He had spent a fortune lavishly redecorating it in anticipation of the day Miss Arbuthnot would come to reign as queen of the castle. Instead, he settled for turning it into an informal hotel. His hospitality became renowned among neighbors and visiting guests--aside from his obsession with Eleanor, he struck everyone as a genial, generous, and gentlemanly character. When he died in 1866, he was greatly missed. To this day in Ireland, you can hear folk ballads celebrating Carden and his "romance."

And then there was Eleanor. Truly a "victim of love" if ever there was one, Eleanor saw her life irretrievably blighted by her unwanted admirer. With the public regarding Carden as the hero of the story, the woman who steadfastly rejected him naturally became the villain. The utterly blameless Eleanor was seen as Carden's ruin, not the other way around. For some time after the trial, she could not appear in public for fear of being hissed at, heckled, or worse. Her reputation--that most prized possession among well-bred Victorian ladies--was permanently ruined by the scandal. She never married. Until her death in 1894, she contented herself with becoming a second mother to her sister Laura's children.

No, life is very seldom fair.