"...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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Our latest installment of the "Boston Post" series, "Famous Cats of New England," looks at one very handsome pool player:
The first pool-playing cat to be put on the list of New England's famous cats is Bunkie Dodge of Dorchester. Out at the R.B. Dodge residence, 196 Boston street, the Dodge boys leave the pool balls on the table after they have played their game and Bunkie sees to it that they land in the pockets.

Bunkie can also start a game for himself by extracting balls from the pockets. He amuses himself for hours at a time in this way and the Dodge boys say he is a better shot than they.

High-minded in every sense is Bunkie. The top of a chair back is his favorite place for perching for a nap.

Fond of music, he often tries to start the phonograph with his little prying paw. Many a ramble he takes across the keys of the piano to treat himself to the music.

Bunkie Dodge has enjoyed motoring from Kennebunk, Me., to Boston.
~January 9, 1921

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Wynekoop Mystery

Rheta Wynekoop

It is indisputable that Rheta Wynekoop was murdered. However, the circumstances surrounding her death are so peculiar that there is still some doubt whether the person tried and convicted of her slaying was really guilty.

The twenty-three year old had been married for five years to a spoiled mama’s boy named Earle Wynekoop. As Earle found the concept of steady work distasteful, the couple lived in the Chicago home of his widowed mother Dr. Alice Wynekoop, a well-known and very highly respected physician. The marriage was an unhappy one. Earle drank, openly played around with numerous women, and largely ignored his pretty young wife. Rheta soon became neurotically depressed. She had married Earle against her parents’ wishes, which undoubtedly only acerbated her misery. There are few things more painful than an act of defiance that backfires on you. She was bored, melancholy, and obsessively worried about her health.

Earle Wynekoop

This dreary household limped along quietly until the night of November 21, 1933, when the police were informed that Dr. Wynekoop had discovered Rheta’s body in her basement surgery. Young Mrs. Wynekoop was lying face-down on an operating table, mostly unclothed, but wrapped in a heavy blanket. It was estimated she had been dead for at least six hours. She had been shot through the back. A gun, which, it was later established, belonged to the doctor, was on a table by Rheta’s head. There were also chloroform burns on her face. One of the numerous oddities about her death was the fact that, although the gun had been fired three times, the young woman had been shot only once. The extra bullets were never found.

The angle of the gunshot, as well as the burns, ruled out suicide. Dr. Wynekoop suggested to police that Rheta had been murdered by a burglar in search of the drugs and money kept in the house. The chief investigator was dubious of this theory. It looked to him that the young woman had been killed by someone she knew. This line of thought led him straight to the playboy husband, Earle. He was told that Rheta’s husband was on his way to the Grand Canyon for a photography job, but he was also aware of gossip that Earle had been seen in Chicago the day before his wife’s death.

Alice Wynekoop

Earle was soon arrested (he was in the company of his latest mistress, who had no idea he was even married.) He strongly denied having anything to do with Rheta’s death, proposing that she had been killed by a stray lunatic. He went on to say that his late wife had once tried to poison the entire family, and was quite insane. He also boasted of having over fifty girlfriends, and, all in all, made it quite clear why any woman married to him would be deeply depressed indeed.

Meanwhile, his mother was being subjected to even more rigorous questioning. The frail sixty-three year old was interrogated for a near-continuous twenty-four hours, culminating in a confession to Rheta’s murder. It is not clear how her statement was obtained. Some accounts say she only admitted guilt after being told her son had confessed. Others state she was simply worn out. In any case, the story she told was this: On the morning of the 21st, Rheta complained of a pain in her side, so Dr. Wynekoop brought her to the basement surgery for an examination. At the young woman’s request, the doctor gave her chloroform, which unexpectedly killed her. When Alice realized Rheta was dead, in an effort to “ease the situation best to all,” she decided to simulate a murder by shooting the corpse.

The sort of thing that could happen to anybody.

The coroner’s jury didn’t buy it. The inquest had ruled Rheta died of a gunshot wound, not chloroform. The police believed Dr. Wynekoop had, for whatever reason, deliberately killed her daughter-in-law, with her son acting as accessory. It turned out that two days before Rheta’s death, Dr. Wynekoop and her son had a secret meeting. It is unknown what was discussed at this rendezvous, but it was evidently something quite extraordinary. Afterwards, the doctor wrote Earle a hysterical, semi-coherent note telling “Precious” how she longed to hear his voice again and have a “real talk” but “I cannot.” And why, the police wondered, did Dr. Wynekoop wait for hours after Rheta’s death before telling anyone about it? And what to make of the fact that only two weeks before her death, Rheta’s life had been insured on a double-indemnity policy for $5,000—with Dr. Wynekoop paying the premiums? Did this extremely devoted mother try to help her son by ridding him of an unwanted wife?

Earle told police that his mother’s confession was “a pack of lies” given only because she thought he was in danger of being charged with the crime. He made an effort to convince police he was his wife’s murderer. He also, for reasons known best to himself, admitted that his mother disliked Rheta and saw her as a millstone around his neck, but their religion forbade divorce.

Dr. Wynekoop told her Precious to just shut up already.

It was soon established that Earle had been many miles away when his wife died, and he was released from custody. Dr. Wynekoop retracted her confession, declaring that it had been forced out of her by the police. She said that after hours of merciless questioning, she felt she wouldn’t live long enough to stand trial, so she confessed to just get everyone to leave her in peace.

Alice Wynekoop stood trial in January 1934. It was, even for the long and peculiar history of Chicago crime, a remarkable spectacle. This elderly, ailing woman, who had long been known in her community as a physician, social worker, teacher, community leader, and advocate for women’s rights was very plausibly accused of the bizarre, cold-blooded murder of her own daughter-in-law. It all produced in the spectators an uncomfortable mixture of horror and titillation.

One of the most interesting witnesses was Enid Hennessey, a friend and patient of Alice who was boarding at the Wynekoop home. She said the day Rheta died seemed perfectly normal. A little past six in the evening, she returned home from her teaching job to find the doctor fixing dinner. Rheta was not there, and Alice expressed some mild concern about her long absence. After going out to do some errands, Miss Hennessey settled in the Wynekoop library with Alice, where they chatted about literature and other unremarkable topics.

It is a strange picture indeed she painted. If Dr. Wynekoop had anything to do with her daughter-in-law’s death, she knew perfectly well a corpse was lying in her basement. Yet, if Miss Hennessey can be believed, her friend the doctor was the picture of placidity.

One senses the Wynekoop household was a highly unusual one even before Rheta’s death.

Hennessey complained of indigestion, which sent the doctor down to her basement office to get some medicine. And there she found Rheta. When Alice finally “discovered” the body, her first call was not to the police. She phoned her daughter Catherine, who was also a doctor. “Something terrible has happened here,” Alice told her. “It is Rheta…She has been shot.”

Catherine testified that when she reached the family home, her mother was shaken and obviously unwell. It was only then that the undertaker and police were called.

After a good deal of squabbling between the attorneys, Dr. Wynekoop’s confession, describing Rheta’s accidental death from chloroform, was allowed into evidence. It was the contention of the State that this statement was a complete lie. According to the prosecution, the doctor, strapped for money, heartlessly killed the young woman for the insurance. The defense countered by claiming the confession had been given under duress, that Dr. Wynekoop had no need for such blood money, and that the defendant had a general reputation as “peaceful and law-abiding.” They also introduced witnesses who testified to the doctor’s fondness and concern for her son’s unhappy wife.

When Dr. Alice herself took the stand, she told a story far different from her confession. She described November 21 as a perfectly calm, normal day in her household. At about three in the afternoon, she went for a walk and completed some minor tasks. When she arrived home, there was no sign of Rheta, but saw no reason for worry. She then began to fix dinner. The rest of her narrative was essentially the same that had been told by Enid Hennessy and Catherine Wynekoop. She continued to maintain that “drug fiends” must have broken into her basement surgery and killed Rheta.

The trial came to its end without any definitive evidence proving who had killed the troubled young woman. Still, the jury evidently found little trouble coming up with a verdict of “guilty.” Alice Wynekoop was sentenced to twenty-five years in the state penitentiary. After fifteen years, the then seventy-nine year old woman was granted parole. She died two years later.

The Wynekoop murder is one of those irritatingly confusing cases with many lingering uncertainties, brought about largely by the fact that little told by any of the witnesses can be trusted. Although the most obvious solution to the mystery is that Alice Wynekoop did indeed kill her daughter-in-law, this still does not explain what would inspire this hitherto exemplary woman to commit such a deed. Was she a remorseless sociopath in disguise? Or did she believe that Earle killed his wife? Contemporaries all agree that she idolized this son to a rather unhealthy degree. Did this extreme mother love inspire her to “take the rap” for him? Considering that Earle’s alibi was judged to be unimpeachable, we are left wondering: If Dr. Wynekoop didn’t kill poor Rheta, who did, and why?

Friday, August 18, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by Maurice Boulanger's Cats of August!

Watch out for the Little People!

Watch out for the Lizard Man!

The Night of the Murdered Poets.

The Hell of being an O.J. juror.

In which John Quincy Adams tells us how to view the eclipse.

In which we take an eating tour of 19th century Lower East Side.

The CIA's recipe for invisible ink.

The many afterlives of Rasputin.

The earliest known winery.

Folklore from 19th century Kirkwall.

Parliament needs cats!

Washington, D.C. needs demon cats!

A brief history of London's Petit Ranelagh.

The capture of an 18th century highwayman.

More from the field of acoustic archaeology.

Adventurous cats.

Defending Fairy Forts.

Life in Bleeding Heart Yard.

A haunted house in Newport.

A famous 1860 railway disaster.

Escape coffins and premature burials.

An odd story involving a DIY submarine and a missing journalist.

Why people didn't smile in old photographs.

Georgian pamphleteering.

19th century cancer treatments.

JMW Turner and "Old Dad."

A 15th century witch trial.  As usual, it ended badly.

How to avoid getting struck by lightning.  In case you don't feel like reading the article, it took them this long to figure the magic secret was:  "Get out of the rain!"

The Burton Gang of Los Angeles.

Competitive lawnmower racing, anyone?

17th century beauty tips.

Some handy tips if you ever marry a mermaid.

How a wedding ring became lost in space.

The moon is full of surprises.

An ode to an Indian cricket player.

Cricket in the Georgian era.

A Civil War era card game ends very badly.

Marie Antoinette's white hair.

The origins of Kotex.

The Buddha and the butterfly.

14th century mobsters.

A ghost riot in Cornwall.

And, finally, a black cat in London's East End has died.  Godspeed, Mr. Pussy.

And that's it for this week!  Tune in on Monday, when we'll visit a "solved," but still puzzling, Chicago murder.  In the meantime, here's an old favorite of mine.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Let's talk about the time it rained knitting needles over Kentucky, shall we? The "Decatur Weekly Republican," on April 13, 1876, copied an item from the "Harrodsburg Gazette":
The Richmond "Register" refers to the strange phenomenon which occurred at Harrodsburg about 1845 [other stories say March 1856], of the shower of knitting needles. This strange occurrence was neither second to the Bath county carnipluvia in its marvelousness, nor in the satisfactory character of the testimony to the fact. There are a number of persons of the most reliable character yet living who cheerfully bear testimony to the fact.

Mr. F.W. Curry upon whose father's lot the shower fell, thus refers to the fact:

The shower occurred during the night. The needles fell over an area of an acre or more of what was used for a hemp factory lot. There was a storm of rain and wind during the night--in the morning the needles of all sizes, some of them whole and some broken, were lying on and sticking in the ground all over the lot. There were two or three pounds of them. Numbers of them were picked up by the women and used. No explanation of the phenomenon could be given. It was conjectured in the midst of the poverty of all explanation that these needles had fallen from the clouds. No one had missed any needles. They were found as related. The most substantial citizens can testify to the fact. No explanation has ever been given. We forebore mentioning it on account of its marvelousness. We are glad our neighbor took the initiatory. Mrs. John Thomas has some of the needles to this day.

According to other news stories, in 1903 a number of "prominent and well known citizens of that day" made a notarized statement attesting to the truth of the event.

As a knitter myself, I would find a rain of needles now and then to be very convenient. An occasional yarn shower would be appreciated, as well.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Witch of the "Recovery"

17th century sea voyages were no pleasure cruises: Potentially deadly storms, bad food, cramped unsanitary berths, seasickness, learning that one of your fellow passengers is a witch trying to bring down the ship...


On November 29, 1691, the magazine "Athenian Mercury" published an account of the hexed voyage of the "Recovery," which sailed to Virginia from England in October 1674. It probably ranks as the most Fortean Atlantic crossing on record.

The anonymous author of the article (who may have been Samuel Wesley, father of the famed Methodist John Wesley,) informs us that from the moment the "Recovery" set sail, the ship suffered an unusually long streak of problems. The weather was bad, anchors were lost, and virtually any part of the ship that could break, did--often more than once. The captain grumbled, "What was mended one Day would the next Day be in pieces." When the "Recovery" stopped in Portugal to pick up a load of wine, a series of disasters led to the entire shipment being lost. The captain noted, "The People on Shoar," told the "Recovery" "we had a Witch aboard."

Life on the "Recovery" only got worse from there. In separate accidents, two sailors fell overboard and drowned. A passenger toppled over the rail, and also perished in the sea. Nearly everyone on board fell ill, leaving the crew "very Weak and Lame." By the time the ship's carpenter announced the only possible explanation for the "Recovery's" "Miserable Trouble"--namely that the vessel was bewitched--everyone was more than ready to believe him. The only question was, who was responsible for the hex?

One of the passengers, an elderly woman named Elizabeth Masters, was unanimously pointed to as the culprit. She was often seen alone, "with her hands up, as if she were at Prayers." This was seen as highly suspicious. When the tack broke while she was the only person on the deck, it was seen as incontrovertible evidence of her guilt. Masters was immediately hustled down to steerage and put in chains. Unfortunately, this only made matters worse. A black cat began stalking the ship, viciously scratching anyone it met and generally freaking everyone out. It was soon followed by a whole pack of demonic felines. When attacked with swords, they would vanish into thin air. Large shaggy black dogs were seen prowling the deck. A band of ghostly sailors would come and go. Despite her imprisonment below deck, Masters herself would make spectral appearances to the ship's passengers, urging them to join her alliance with Satan. Worst of all, the ship's supply of water and beer mysteriously disappeared. Marks of "the Claws of some Creature, as a Cat or the like," were found on the empty casks.

One of the passengers, William Rennols, revealed that Masters' spirit visited him in the night, informing him that his mother back in England was a witch, as well. He found this charge credible, as Mom "was a very Lewd Liver and kept a brothel house in Dog and Bitch Yard, London, and would often in the night go abroad, and come home very bloody."

Another passenger, Mary Leare, complained that thanks to Masters, she was "Dreadfully pinched at the small of her back, hips, and buttocks." Leare decided that the only thing to do was to smear some of the witch's blood on her wounds. This idea attained instant popularity among her shipmates, with the result that they were all making regular visits to "prick" Masters whenever they felt unwell.

Oddly, the "Mercury" ends its tale on this cliffhanger note. We do not know further details of the "Recovery's" Satanic excursion, or what became of Elizabeth Masters. This lack of resolution, coupled with the fact that we have no other record of this haunted voyage, has led some to suspect that the entire story is fiction. However, there are other documented instances of ship's passengers being accused of witchcraft. In 1654, the "Charity" sailed from England to the Province of Maryland. The voyage was plagued by stormy weather and a ship that "daily grew more Leaky." The "Rumour amongst the Seamen" was that "the malevolence of witches" was responsible for their troubles, and "her own deportment and discourse" caused them to identify a passenger named Mary Lee as the culprit. She was seized by the crew, and after they discovered "some Signall or Marke of a witch upon her," the poor woman was unceremoniously hanged. No one was ever held responsible for this lynching at sea.

Four years later, the ship "Sarah Artch" made the same trip from England to Maryland. During the crossing, a passenger named Elizabeth Richardson was accused of sorcery and quickly hanged. (A side note: the chief complainant against Richardson was one John Washington, the great-grandfather of the first American President.) In this case, the ship's owner, Edward Prescott, was arrested and tried for the "extra-jurisdictional" execution. The governor of Maryland had no particular objection to hanging witches, but he wanted it done on dry land and on his watch. At his trial, Prescott successfully argued that he had no responsibility for Richardson's murder. It was his crew who insisted on hanging the woman, and if he had tried to stop them, they would have mutinied. He was acquitted.

In 1658, another luckless emigrant, Katherine Grady, was blamed for the unusually bad weather plaguing her ship, with the result that she was soon swinging from the yardarm. When the ship arrived in Virginia, the captain, a man named Bennett, was summoned to appear before the General Court at Jamestown to answer for Grady's death. Unfortunately, there is no surviving record of how the case was resolved, but odds are that Bennett also got away with murder.

These cases show that as bizarre as the story of the "Recovery" may be, it is quite likely that at least the essentials of the tale are correct, meaning that a helpless old woman named Elizabeth Masters probably came to a very brutal end.

In short, if you were an elderly woman taking a 17th century sea voyage, you had a very particular reason to pray for an uneventful trip.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

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

Meet Edgar.  In 1987, he was an orphaned kitten we took in because, well, if we didn't nobody else would.

You couldn't find anyone with a more angelic personality.  Eddie was sweet-natured, affectionate, (he would follow me around the house like a puppy,) playful, friendly to everyone he met, and extraordinarily well-behaved.  Even non-cat-people were won over by his charm.

Even Pongo loved him.  And I can tell you, Pongo did not think highly of very many souls.

Eddie died of liver disease at the age of 14.  I still keep his ashes on my dresser, next to this little obsidian cat I bought in his memory.

What the hell is the Heysham Hogback?

A variation on the old joke about Grant:  Who the hell is buried under Columbus' tomb?

Watch out for those phantom coaches!

Watch out for those cursed chairs!

A day in the life of a public executioner.

The busy life of an 18th century naturalist.

The truth about the female writer and the skinny-dipping president.

Summer in the City.  The city of early 19th century London, that is.

Vintage portraits of hop pickers.

The Apostrophe Superhero.

A ghostly white cat.

Bread as a weapon of war.

Studio photos of 1860s Russians.

Captain Steadman and the goblin.

A trip to the moon, 1892.

A Victorian cat dictionary.

Because I know all of you have been dying to know how long a garden slug can live in a human stomach.

Robert E. Lee's connection to a long-unsolved German murder case.

There's enough in this post to keep a room of historians arguing for weeks.

The folklore of wedding cakes.

17th century rural poor and high fashion.

A cat and his chair.

On the dangers of bulldozing a fairy thorn.

On the link between French werewolves and glass factories.

The private contractor and the prison hulk.

Fanny Burney's mastectomy.

Infanticide in the Regency era.

The latest addition to the "pushing back human history" file.

Bloody freaking hell, they're still trying to peddle the Maybrick Diary.

The surprisingly controversial question of whether there are human remains in the wreckage of the "Titanic."

The mummy of the "Polar Princess."

Preserving the most infamous pink suit in American history.

When there is such a thing as too many cats.

The 18th century Countess and the goblin.

The mythical origins of the Greeks.

The remarkable octopus.

A Georgian aristocratic marriage.

The spoils of war: a patchwork quilt.

All you need to know about Herne the Hunter.

The hazards of being a Victorian governess.

Two lost children and a prophetic dream.

The execution of "Swedish Anna."

An interactive map of London, circa A.D. 50.

Stolen trousers and murder.

When Victorians danced on the dead.

Two very strange deaths in Arkansas.

A tragedy in Kentucky.

Victorian dog funerals.

A helpful poltergeist.

This week in Russian Weird looks at the world's spookiest radio station.

Not to mention the time x-rays helped foil Soviet censorship.

After you read those links, let's go shopping, Comrade!  (Pro tip: Skip the frozen meat.)

Thus ends yet another Link Dump.  See you all on Monday, when we'll look at High Strangeness on the High Seas. In the meantime, here's Mr. Glen Campbell.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

The "Boston Post's" latest "Famous Cat of New England" features a teetotaler kitten and his buddy the alligator:
Tabsy Owl's name is a whole story in itself. Being the official club cat of St. Joseph's Total Abstinence Society in the West End, the "Tabsy" was bestowed on him as an abbreviation for the total abstinence part of it. The Owl came because of his propensities for staying up late with the boys at the club. While there's a late stayer there Tabsy Owl is right beside him.

Then there's Sport, the baby alligator, that Frank Gaffney, member of the club and also one of the star men on the Post sports staff, brought up from Jacksonville, Fla., with him about a month ago. Tabsy Owl has adopted Sport. Tenderly as ever mother cat watched over her kittens Tabsy Owl watches over Sport. The scaly hide of the little chap is carefully washed off every day by the pink tongue of Tabsy Owl, and the little fellow loves it.

The cat and the alligator occupy the centre of the big table when the boys gather around each night. Tabsy Owl stands for a good deal of rough-housing with the boys. He can box back and knows all the strangle holds and defences and feints of the game. He obeys all rules. But let one of them try to tweak the tail of Sport and Tabsy Owl rushes at him.
~January 8, 1921