"...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, January 16, 2017

The Tragedy at Otterburn

Evelyn Foster worked as a driver at her father's taxi service in Otterburn, a small English village near the Scottish border. On January 6, 1931, at about 7 p.m., the 28-year-old was flagged down by a stranger who was standing near a car with several people inside. The man told her these people had been giving him a lift, but they were going to Hexham, and he wanted to go to Newcastle. The man asked Evelyn to take him to Ponteland, around 20 miles away, where he hoped to catch a bus to Newcastle. She told him she could drive him back to Otterburn, and then see where he could get a bus.

Driving alone with people she did not know was perhaps not the safest occupation, but Foster was a strong, practical woman who figured she could take care of herself. Besides, the man was well-dressed, soft-spoken, and gentlemanly. Certainly, there was nothing at all to alarm anyone.

When they arrived at the Foster garage, she told him the drive would cost him £2, and he readily agreed. While she refilled the car with gas, her customer said he would have a drink at the nearby Percy Arms. After a few minutes, she went to the pub to collect him, and the pair drove off.

The narrative of what happened next was pieced together from Evelyn's later statements: As they drove off, the two chatted casually. The passenger--who never gave his name--told Foster he was from the Midlands. (She thought he had a Tyneside accent.) He seemed to know a lot about cars. All was perfectly normal until they reached the town of Belsay, six miles from their destination. Then, the man abruptly told Foster to turn back. "Why?" she asked.

His mild manner suddenly changed. "That's nothing to do with you," he snarled. He reached over and grabbed the steering wheel. "No!" she protested. "I will do the driving." His answer was to punch her in the eye, temporarily blinding her. He shoved her over to the side of the car, leaving her arms pinned to her sides, and took the wheel, driving back towards Otterburn.

Just outside of the village, he stopped at a place called Wolf's Nick. With peculiar casualness, he offered Foster a cigarette. She refused. "Well, you are an independent young woman," he said mockingly.

At this point, Foster's recollection of that night turned hazy and confused. All she could remember was the man beating her and practically throwing her in the back of the car. Then he raped her. Afterwards, as she was lying there in a daze, she got a vague sense of him taking a bottle out of his pocket and pouring something on her. The next thing she knew, she was on fire. Somehow, she was able to crawl out of the car and drag her burned body out to the road, praying for someone to come by and help her.

She lay there until ten o'clock, when Cecil Johnson and Tommy Rutherford, two of her co-workers, happened to drive by. They stopped when they saw the now-smoldering automobile. When the two men went over to investigate, they immediately recognized the burned-out car as one belonging to their firm.

Foster was lying a few yards away. She was still alive, although barely conscious. "It was that awful man," she moaned to them. "Oh, that awful man. He has gone in a motor-car."

Johnson and Rutherford drove her to her family's home, and a doctor was instantly summoned, but there was nothing he or anyone else could do for the horribly burned woman. She was just able to tell her story of what had happened before she died early the next morning. It was noted that despite her agony, she was still completely lucid. Her last words were "I have been murdered."

At first, everyone presumed the murderer would be quickly caught. Surely, the people who had given the man a lift before Foster met him would come forward and tell anything they knew about him. Surely the Percy Arms barman and others in the vicinity would be able to give a fuller description of him. If he got a ride afterward in another car or a bus, his movements could be traced. And if he fled his crime on foot, in this remote and lonely area he would easily be spotted. And there were other clues--a man's glove was found near the car, as well as a footprint. The police could be pardoned for thinking the killer had made it almost too easy for them.

But all these leads, all these clues, proved to be completely useless. After launching the biggest manhunt Northumberland had ever seen, investigators could not find one other person who had seen anyone matching Foster's description of her attacker. It was as if the man was a phantom, seen by no one but his victim. The barman at the Percy Arms claimed that no stranger had come into the pub on the fatal night. Evelyn Foster had not come by, either.

In fact, the more police looked into Foster's story, the more unlikely it sounded. Although she had said the man set the fire while they were on the side of the road, and then pushed the car off into a ditch, there was no burn marks between the road and the ditch. It was determined that the car had been slowly driven off the road, and then set on fire after it stopped. The fire had originated from behind the car, not in front, and it was believed that it had been set using a tin of gas carried in the luggage box at the back of the car. They also began to question her story about the man pinning her against her seat and then driving back to Wolf's Neck. It would have been very difficult for anyone to maneuver the car in such a position. And why didn't she use her foot to put on the brake?

Law enforcement felt their doubts about Foster's account were confirmed when they read her autopsy report. She had not been raped. In fact, she had died a virgin. And there was no sign she had been struck on her face or head. In short, they became convinced her entire story was a fabrication, meant to cover the fact that she herself had set fire to the car--probably for the insurance money--and while doing so, accidentally set herself ablaze, as well. The Coroner agreed with this theory, and at Foster's inquest, practically directed the jury to come to that conclusion. Instead, they defiantly returned a verdict of "willful murder against some person unknown."

Everyone who had known Foster agreed with the jury, and were outraged that the police tried to blame her for her horrific death. She had been known as an honest, hard-working, self-respecting sort. A scheme like the one outlined by the police was entirely foreign to her nature. Besides, the insurance company would not have paid any more than the car's current market value, which would be less than £100. She had a healthy bank balance, and was in no need of money. Nevertheless, Otterburn's police captain issued a statement asserting that the attacker Foster described simply did not exist. As far as the authorities were concerned, the case was closed.

The case was closed, but was it solved? It has been pointed out that these refutations of Foster's story could themselves be refuted. The man could have been waiting outside the Percy Arms for her, which would explain why the barman did not see either of them come in. It is also possible that the man could have struck her hard enough to leave her temporarily stunned, but not so hard as to leave visible marks. The claim that she had been raped could have arisen from a misunderstanding. When Evelyn was first asked what had happened to her, she said nothing about rape. Later, when her mother asked if the man had "interfered" with her, Evelyn said yes, but she might not have interpreted that as referring to a sexual attack. In fact, it was the police, not Evelyn's mother, who translated that as meaning Foster said she was raped. Also, Foster never carried matches or a lighter, and nothing of that sort was found near the car. So, how could she have set it on fire?

Most crime historians who have studied this case believe that Foster was indeed the victim of a particularly horrible murder. So, who was this man? Why did he commit this senseless savagery? How did he escape? Was he guilty of other murders?

We have no idea.

Ernest Brown

[Note: In his 1977 book "The Burning of Evelyn Foster," Jonathan Goodman offered a possible suspect for Foster's murder. Two years after her death, a farm hand named Ernest Brown shot his employer and tried to burn the body in a car. The motive was simple jealousy--Brown was sleeping with his employer's wife. The farm was not very far from Otterburn--in fact, Brown had a friend who lived just outside of Foster's village. Goodman pointed out that Brown's appearance generally matched Foster's description of her attacker--he was also a natty dresser and had a Tyneside accent. Having a friend who lived near Otterburn would have given him a convenient hiding place after the murder. Just before Brown was executed for his crime, the chaplain advised him to confess his other sins, in order to make his peace with God. Brown responded with a mumble that has been interpreted as "Ought to burn." Goodman wondered if perhaps he had really said "Otterburn." Was he confessing to Foster's murder? It's an ingenious theory, although highly tenuous, and still fails to give a motive for the crime.]

Friday, January 13, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is, naturally, sponsored by the Cats of Friday the 13th!

Life Magazine, 1941

Watch out for those fairy vampires!

Watch out for the Monstrous Wyvern!

Watch out for the Donkey Lady of Texas!

How tequila saves endangered species.  

A notorious early 19th century murderer.

The Norwood Gypsy.

Some Victorian criminal slang.

In search of a Welsh "lost city."

A condemned murderer's death dance.

Some prominent 19th century theater fires.

The saga of the Minnesota Iceman.

An unusual Egyptian mummy.

The famous painting depicting the death of Marat.

When dogs were kitchen gadgets.

Cat uses sign language to ask for demand food.  Uh, don't they all?

Iceland's oddly eerie last executions.  Oddly eerie, because, well, Iceland.

A tax targeting spinsters and their cats; or, why the 18th century would have left me bankrupt.

One of history's intriguing little mysteries: Was Madame de Genlis Napoleon's spy?

How a Victorian girl escaped her kidnapper.

How one woman went from servant girl to business mogul.

For all of you who are just dying to read about ear maggots.

On a related topic, here is some praise for earwax.

A Greek tomb shows what we don't know about Western civilization.

This week's Advice From Thomas Morris:  What not to do with a carving knife.

Medical care for servants, Early Modern style.

The oldest silk.

That time we nearly obliterated Arkansas.

Why a man has spent 40 years in a ghost town.

18th century wig snatching.

An 1870s cat hospital.

Yet another case of adultery leading to the scaffold.

If, like me, you love silent film, here is how they did special effects.

Brighton's Green Man.

In praise of "Green Acres."  Damn right.

Agatha Christie and ancient Nimrud.

Persia in WWI.

Witchcraft soup.

That time the Wandering Jew played roulette.

The sounds of Stonehenge.

A Romanov spoiled brat.  (Incidentally, "Russia's Lost Princesses" is on YouTube.  If you haven't seen it, go take a look; it's great.)

A tragic case of "puerperal insanity."

A princess and her pampered bulldogs.

Norse gods had a great way with insulting repartee.

The White Lady of Crook Hall.

Some disappearances from hospitals.

The girl with six doppelgangers.

The Great Beach Pyjama Scandal of 1933. 

An Illinois witch grave.

Victorian French lingerie.

A famous "changeling."

This week in Russian Weird:  Come fly with me!

And that's all for this week.  See you on Monday, when we'll be looking at a woman's horrific--and extremely strange--death.  In the meantime, how about some Morris dances?

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Old Bailey Clipping of the Day

While browsing through Old Bailey Online's murder cases--as we all do--I came across this trial from February 26, 1729, that caught my eye thanks to its sheer pithy weirdness.

John Swart, was indicted for the Murder of Elizabeth Hether, by flinging Salt in her Eyes, which so grieved and distampered the said Elizabeth Hether, that she languished from the 10th of October last to the 27th of the said Month, and then died, but as it did not appear to be done with Malice aforethought, the Jury acquitted him.
Calling all crime historians! Are there any other known cases of "Murder By Salt-Flinging," or was Mr. Swart unique in the annals of homicide?

Monday, January 9, 2017

An "African Princess" at Queen Victoria's Court

Portrait of Sarah as a child, Octavious Oakley

One of my favorite opening lines in all of literature comes from the preface to Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs: "'Man proposes and God disposes.' There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice." We have "free will" in the sense that we can choose what we make of these circumstances, for good or ill, but the circumstances themselves are largely out of our control. Life is a series of unexpected twists and turns that usually leave us as helplessly buffeted as so many autumn leaves in the wind. It is not a good world for anyone who dislikes surprises.

One sterling example of the strange vagaries of fate is the life of one 19th century African girl. Her birth name was "Aina," but she has come down to history as "Sarah Forbes Bonetta."

Aina was born in what is now Nigeria circa 1843. All we know about her family is that in 1848 her parents and siblings were killed in a raid carried out by forces of the Dahomian King Gezo. Little Aina, for unknown reasons, was spared and held as a captive in the Dahomian palace.

So far, Aina's life could be called unfortunate, but hardly remarkable. It was in 1850 that her life took its great unexpected turn. Frederick Forbes, captain of the naval ship HMS Bonetta, was sent to the Dahomian kingdom to conduct negotiations on behalf of Queen Victoria. King Gezo had been a major partner with Britain in that country's now-abolished slave trade, and Forbes was commissioned to persuade Gezo to give up that now-abhorred practice. It can probably be seen as a measure of Forbes' success that the king responded by giving Aina as a gift to the Englishman, as if she was just another trinket. She was, in Forbes' words, "a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites."

Forbes had his new charge baptized, naming her after both himself and his ship. Forbes did not regret his "gift," as he was very favorably impressed with the girl's dignified, amiable bearing and sharp intelligence--qualities that are strikingly evident in her photographs. The captain wrote admiringly, "She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and [has] great talent for music… She is far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection…”  After arriving in England in November 1850, the child was presented to the queen. Like Forbes, Victoria was struck by the little foreigner's bright, winning ways, which led her to agree to sponsor Sarah's education. The girl officially became part of the royal household, although she actually went to live in Gillingham, with the family of a famed missionary, the Reverend James Schoen.

It was the era when the concept of "Christianizing" Africa was very much in vogue. Many native Africans were enlisted as missionaries to their native land, with the goal of educating their countrymen on the benefits of Christianity and publicizing the horrors of the slave trade. Sarah's intelligence, character, and charm marked her as an obvious candidate for this role. It was decided that once she completed her basic education, Sarah should be sent to a missionary school in Sierra Leone. The girl did very well in her studies, but was lonely in Sierra Leone, and missed England, the only home she could remember. When the queen learned of her unhappiness, she arranged for Sarah to return in 1855. Sarah (or "Sally," as the queen called her,) became a well-known figure in England, where the former war orphan was fancifully seen as an exotic "African princess." She regularly visited Windsor Castle, and even attended the wedding of the queen's daughter Alice. She earned the affection and respect of everyone who knew her, from the queen on down.

Sarah in 1862

In 1860, Sarah met a wealthy West African merchant and philanthropist named James Pinson Labulo Davies, who soon expressed his desire to marry her. Although Sarah herself was, at best, lukewarm about the idea, her guardians saw Davies as an ideally suitable match, and once the Queen herself endorsed the proposed marriage, the matter was considered settled. As usual, Sarah's fate was taken out of her hands.

Sarah and Davies were married in a lavish ceremony on August 14, 1862. It was a minor celebrity event, with sixteen bridesmaids, 10 carriages filled with "White ladies and African gentlemen, as well as, White gentlemen with African ladies," and crowds of fascinated onlookers who were, most likely, feeling more happiness about the event than the bride herself.

Sarah and James Davies

After a brief stay in England, the couple moved back to Sierra Leone. Sarah gave birth to a daughter in 1863. The baby was named "Victoria," after the royal sponsor of her mother, and the Queen herself agreed to be godmother. Sarah eventually had three more children. Sadly, she soon developed tuberculosis, which was in those days a death sentence. She died on the Portuguese island of Madeira in August 1880, aged only about thirty-seven. Her oldest child, Victoria, continued to enjoy royal favor. She received a fine education at Cheltenham College, as well as an annuity from the queen. Sarah's many descendants still occupy a prominent place in and around Nigeria.

It would be interesting to know what Sarah privately thought of the strange path she had taken through life. Was she happy, and grateful for being rescued from her precarious position of captive at King Gezo's court? Or did she end her days still feeling like a stranger in a strange land?

Friday, January 6, 2017

Weekend Link Dump

This week's Link Dump is sponsored by a cat who expresses perfectly how I feel about this time of year.

How the hell did Paul Bern die?

Watch out for Pecos, New Mexico!

Watch out for Cursed Mountain, Africa!

Watch out for Haunted Vaults, Edinburgh!

Watch out for Pious Werewolves, Ulster!

Watch out for Voodoo Murders, New Orleans!

Watch out for Giant Winged Humanoids, Phoenix!

Watch out for Phantom Plane Crashes, Ireland!

Defending fakelore.

The lost potential of Lady Jane Grey.

The Swedish royal palace is haunted.  But no worries, they're friendly.

Never mind what this post tells you, I say dogs are always welcome in drawing rooms.

The extinct Indians of Texas.

Space archaeology.

The appeal of changelings.

More changelings!

The family behind a painting.

A real case of "looks that kill."

So, what's with the Fairy Armies?

Drunken P.G. Wodehouse!

Just a girl and her dog  deer.

The Christmas Witch of Italy.

The Great (French) Pretender.

The Great Spider Web Cure.

Nothing says "holiday fun" like those magic words, "Victorian teetotalers."

The hazards of painting unflattering portraits of the Devil.

Saving ancient Chinese treasures.

A French giant visits England.

The girl with black sweat.

The best article you'll read all week about Jonathan Swift's underwear.

18th century superstitions.

Now, this is my idea of a year-end list:  the weirdest conspiracy theories of 2016.

Giving mummies a check-up.

9/11 reincarnation stories.

The unquiet Earl of Derwentwater.

The death of one of history's most notorious poisoners.

The Victorian lady whose mind governed the world.

A New Year's Woman in Black.

Truth and fiction about medieval beer.

Gotta love those 17th century sea serpents.

Gotta love those 19th century stomach serpents.

Gotta love those 18th century ice-skating dandies.

The passing of one very strong-willed duck.

Victorian crowd swindles.

Love gone very wrong in Los Angeles.

A look at 17th century prostitutes.

19th century hacking.

Charlemagne's UFOs.

The Titanic had more problems than just icebergs.

That time the British tried to turn Hitler into a woman.

This week in Canada Weird: You can buy a Potemkin village in Quebec.

A mysterious 1885 death.

On a different note, let's close with one really nice little story for your weekend.  

And that's it for yet another WLD.  See you on Monday, when we'll meet one of Queen Victoria's most unusual godchildren.  In the meantime, I apologize if Latvian folk music isn't your bag, but I recently discovered Folkvakars on YouTube, and I just love them.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Our next installment of the "Boston Post's" "Famous Cats of New England" series introduces us to a feline very aptly named "The Lucky."
"Lucky cat!" It's quite as good a phrase as "lucky dog." Proof of this is Peter. Peter is the beautiful white angora Simmons College cat. "The Rose in No Man's Land," the girls call Peter. He lives in their north hall dormitory.

Sixty downy couches to sleep upon; 60 shining chafing dishes all ready to brew his catship any favorite dish--these are only a few of the luxuries extraordinary that surround Peter the Lucky.

The cat that goes visiting every week-end is surely a cat entitled to his place on the list of New England's famous cats. Peter has gone home with different girls every week-end since college opened in September. He has week-ended in every single one of the New England states.

The girls even forego the comforts of the Pullman so that they may have Peter in his "hen coop" with them in the day coach.

The girls themselves made Peter's travelling compartment. Miss Eleanor Childs and Miss Kathleen Halladay designed it, and explain it as a cross between a berry crate and a knitting bag. At any rate it suffices to take Peter safely on his journeys.

Leaving tonight for Concord, N.H., to spend the Christmas vacation is the Simmons College cat. He is to be the house guest of Miss Dorothy Williams. Close application to books has made Peter very pale, the girls say, and they hope the bracing New Hampshire air will make a new cat of him.
~December 23, 1920

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Unknown Bairn

Disappearances are arguably the most haunting category of true crime/mystery cases. When a person seemingly vanishes from the earth for no obvious reason, it brings us uncomfortably close to a dangerous Netherworld.

It shouldn't be forgotten that the opposite is true. When someone's body suddenly appears, with no clue to the deceased's identity or how they came to be where they were found, one is confronted with the same disquieting reminder of how very fragile and senseless human life can be. When the body in question is that of a small child, the puzzle becomes even more eerie.

This particular "reappearance" mystery opened on the afternoon of May 23, 1971. One Ian Robertson was taking his five-year-old son Neil for a walk along the beach near their home in Tayport, Scotland. Robertson happened to notice an object floating two or three yards from shore. He thought it was a large plastic doll. His curiosity piqued by the odd sight, he went to examine the object more closely.

He was horrified by what he found. "When I turned the bundle over," Robertson later recalled, "it was a quite horrible sight--to see that it was a human body. A little boy about three years old. The nose and lips were almost gone and the knees were in a bad shape, all points where the body would have been in friction with the rocks or the river-bed...it seemed so much like a bad dream." The little corpse was dressed in a pajama top over a blue shirt. Robertson kept the news of his discovery from his son, merely ordering Neil to run home. He then summoned police.

A pathologist determined that the child, who was between two and four years of age, died from drowning. He had been in the water for two to six weeks. Aside from the marks caused by hitting rocks, there were no signs of trauma on the body. It was impossible to tell if the boy's drowning was due to accident or murder. The boy was well-nourished and appeared to have been well cared-for. The only clue to his identity was on the label on his shirt: "Achilles, size 3." The label enabled investigators to determine that the shirt had been made by the Leeds firm of John Barren & Co. That particular line had been discontinued five years earlier, suggesting the shirt was a hand-me-down or purchased at a second-hand store. This led police to surmise the boy came from a relatively poor family who lived somewhere in the UK.

The discovery was well-publicized. Scottish media carried stories about the mystery every day. Police spread word of the anonymous child through Britain and continental Europe. It was assumed that the boy's parents or other close relatives would instantly come forward to claim the body. As the days, then weeks, went by, everyone involved in the case became increasingly disturbed by the fact that the child remained unidentified. Not one person stepped forward with any information about him. No child matching his description had been reported missing anywhere in Great Britain. It was as if this little boy had gone through his short life completely invisible to the world.

It made no sense. Even if his parents or guardians had murdered him, surely there must have been relatives or acquaintances who could identify him? If his parents died with him, either through accident or a suicide pact, where were their bodies? The most popular theory--that the boy and his family had been on a ship at sea which sank, killing all aboard--was abandoned when it was found there were no reports of lost or abandoned vessels around the time the child drowned.

Police pursued every possible lead that came to their attention, but to no avail. The child's identity--and the answer to how he came to be found dead on a Scottish beach--remained as elusive as ever.

Five days after he was discovered, the mysteriously lost boy was buried in a simple, but well-attended ceremony. The cost of the funeral was paid for through a fund-raising campaign. A local sculptor donated the headstone, which reads:
Erected by the people of Scotland
In memory of
A wee boy
Aged between 2 and 4 years
Found on the beach at Tayport
23rd May 1971
"Suffer little children to come unto me."

The boy has not been forgotten by anyone involved in the mystery. Locals still gather at his grave on each anniversary of his burial. Some years later, the Detective-Superintendent in charge of the case, James Morgan, told a reporter, "I can't really say why, but I always felt, and feel even more strongly these days, that the boy was reasonably local and the child of poor parents who were perhaps too short of money to give him decent burial after accidental drowning and/or too embarrassed to come forward and try to do so while all the publicity was going on." Morgan felt the child likely belonged to "the travelling folk," who are "a little lax about the bureaucracy that the rest of us have grudgingly learned to live with."

The boy may be unnamed, but he is not unmourned. As Morgan said, "Someone always puts fresh flowers on his grave."