Back in the days when the old Knoxville Journal newspaper was in existence, it carried the syndicated cartoon Ripley’s Believe It or Not! I was a huge fan of Robert L. Ripley’s collection of oddities, and of the 1982-86 television show hosted by the late Jack Palance. I loved the way he intoned, “The strange. . .the bizarre. . .the unexpected. These are the things a man named Robert L. Ripley challenged us to—” His voice was replaced by that of Ripley himself, who had done radio broadcasts as far back as the 1920s, saying, “Believe it–or not!”
Ripley was a fascinating guy in his own right. He began Believe It or Not! as a collection of sports oddities called “Champs and Chumps,” doing the cartoon pictures himself. He eventually branched out into the collection of other odd trivia. Although Ripley died in 1949, his oddities were continued by other collectors and cartoonists for many years. (Ripley was also the first to publish the work of a young boy who drew a cartoon about a dog with peculiar eating habits; that young boy was Charles M. Schulz, and the dog inspired the immortal Snoopy.)
In the 1970s, some of these strange stories were collected in comic book anthologies. They featured color art and many of the stories were about the paranormal. I first heard of the infamous British highway robber Lady Mary Ferrers, the strange alien being Springheeled Jack, and a host of others in these small books.
The one that has stuck longest in my mind, of all the tales in the Ripley anthologies, though, is one that the cartoonist called “The Devil’s Midget.” Although at least one online source reports that it’s a completely bogus tale, I’ve found that it has been retold in books published as recently as 2000, and is mentioned in Dennis William Hauck’s 1994 edition of The National Directory of Haunted Places.
The story goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, when a gang of international jewel thieves was operating on ships sailing between New York and the European mainland. The most accomplished thief in the bunch was literally a little person: a woman in her thirties who was no taller or more developed than a six year old and looked no older than one either. Born Estelle Ridley, she used the name Fanchon Moncare in her criminal enterprises. She traveled frequently by ship, escorted by her “governess,” an older woman named Ada Danforth. Fanchon would charm wealthy passengers aboard the vessels into revealing where they kept their jewelry; Ada would sneak into unattended staterooms and steal the baubles, and Fanchon would hide them in the doll she always carried. This doll had a removable china head and a hollow body cavity, in which the stolen jewels would brazenly be carried through customs—now what customs agent was going to upset such a sweet little girl by asking to search her dolly? I ask you!–and thence to Manhattan’s Chinatown to be fenced.
Once in Chinatown, safe from the prying eyes of the authorities, Fanchon Moncare dropped the sweet little girl act. She drank, cursed like a sailor, smoked cigars, and drove such hard bargains that the Chinese fences who resold the jewels and took a very small percentage of the proceeds gave her the nickname “midget of the devil.”
Fanchon and Ada made a fortune in the jewelry theft business, in their most audacious score taking a quarter million dollars’ worth of gold, silver and precious stones through customs stored in “Dolly’s” belly. Things began to go sour, however, when they took on an accomplice, a young woman named Magda Hamilton.
Some versions of the story say that Magda actually replaced the aging Ada Danforth as Fanchon’s “governess”; others, that she and Ada had a falling out over a man and Magda turned police informant for spite. The Ripley’s version, which omitted Ada from the gang altogether, maintains that Magda was angry because Fanchon, after initially promising to cut her into the enterprise fifty-fifty in a theft involving a Chicago businessman, gave her only a third of the profits they made, arguing, quite sensibly, that since Fanchon herself did all the work save the actual thefts, she should get the bulk of the profits.
Whatever the cause, Magda Hamilton turned state’s evidence. Her testimony netted her a short sentence; Fanchon Moncare was sentenced to life. The last time Magda saw Fanchon alive, Fanchon vowed that she would have her revenge.
Magda served her time, got out, and married a wealthy man named Dartway Crawley. They bought a mansion on New York’s Staten Island, and then Dartway Crawley left his wife and went to California.
Magda lived alone in the house.
In 1870, word came that Fanchon Moncare had died in prison, possibly a suicide.
Shortly afterward, Magda Hamilton Crawley was found dead in her bed. It appeared that she had died of suffocation. The legend goes that Fanchon Moncare returned from the grave, appeared in Magda’s bedroom, and killed her by shoving the china head of her beloved “Dolly” down Magda’s throat.
The Crawley house, according to Hauck, is haunted to this day—not by the hapless Magda, but by the ghost of tiny Fanchon Moncare, the Devil’s Midget. She has been seen both inside the old mansion and on the widow’s walk on the roof.
Believe it—or not!