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Archive for September, 2010

Valentino’s Ring

I was collecting notes for another post about a cursed object when my puter went down–this is the fruit of those labors. 😉

The most peripatetic ghost in Hollywood, of all the great stars who have lived and died there, is, apparently, the silent film star Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926). Valentino died of peritonitis secondary to a perforated ulcer at the unmercifully early age of thirty-one. And that death may have been, in part, due to a cursed ring that he purchased in a jeweler’s shop in 1920.

Valentino’s friend, the bandleader, songwriter and psychic Chaw Mank (born Charles Menk Jr., 1902-1985), told the story this way:

Valentino bought the ring, a curious gem known as a tiger’s eye, in 1920. He was told by the jeweler, so the story goes, that the jewel was cursed, but bought it anyway. When he showed his new bauble to Mank, the psychic Mank was promptly overwhelmed by a vision of a pale, obviously dead Valentino, and advised Valentino to get rid of the ring. Valentino, of course, did no such thing. Several of his pictures in the immediate wake of the purchase flopped at the box office; then, in August 1926, an untreated ulcer and the resultant infection killed him.

Valentino, though, was not the only one affected by the curse on the ring. Consider this list:

Pola Negri. Also a great silent movie star, Negri, who claimed in later years that she and Valentino were engaged to be married at the time of his death (and who was at one time believed to be the Lady in Black who left flowers yearly at his mausoleum grave), was given the ring following Valentino’s death. Negri promptly fell gravely ill, and remained so for some time. By the time she recovered her career was, like that of many silent film stars, virtually over.

Russ Colombo (1908-1934). Colombo was hired by a director named Lansing Brown to play Valentino in a biographical picture. Colombo wore the ring, and shortly thereafter was killed in a freak shooting accident. (Tangentially, Colombo was at the time of his death dating the beautiful blonde Carole Lombard, who would die in a 1943 plane crash.)

Joe Casino. Casino was a gangster who bought the ring at some point but refused to wear it, claiming he was waiting for the curse to wear off. After some years had passed, he began wearing the ring; within a week, he was killed by a hit and run driver.

Joe Casino left the ring to his brother Del, who never wore it. While it was in Del’s possession, however, it was stolen by a two-bit housebreaker named

James Willis. Willis was shot dead by police as he left Del Casino’s house.

Del Casino loaned the ring out to another film director, Edward Small, who–like Lansing Brown before him–was planning a biographical film about Valentino. Small’s star was a relative unknown, but he would become the last known victim of the curse.

Jack Dunn wore the ring for two weeks. During that two weeks, he was diagnosed with, and died of, a rare blood disease.

Del Casino thereafter kept the ring in a bank vault. The bank wasn’t immune to the curse, according to Chaw Mank; it was robbed several times, and at least once nearly burned to the ground in a mysterious fire.

When last heard of, the ring was, according to author Brad Steiger, owned by a New York barber, who won it in a peculiar contest; a live radio show awarded the ring to the listener who could write the best essay describing its peculiar powers.

I have to say, this story isn’t very satisfactory either; again, we don’t know the source of the curse story, save that the jeweler who originally sold it to Valentino claimed it was cursed.

Still, some very strange things do appear to have happened to a number of people who came into contact with that cat’s-eye ring.

Danged if I know what to make of it.

I ran across the story of Rudolph Valentino’s cursed ring in Brad Steiger’s 1990 book GHOSTS AMONG US. Steiger, in turn, made use of material from a 1966 biography he wrote about Valentino, which was based in part on Chaw Mank’s reminiscences.

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The Prodigal Returns

Back after two weeks plus of computer problems. Got one on loan from my buddy Willard. (Thanks, Willard!) Looking forward to Halloween–my favorite holiday– 😀

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Cranky as hell today. Probably would be a very good idea to remove my cranky self from the Intertubez, therefore, and crochet, which seems to ease the crankiness (at least, until the yarn tangles or I miss a stitch). And with some almightily sweet musical accompaniment:

Missed this in my travels somehow.

Later, luvs. Sweet dreams–

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The Cursed Bowie Knife

There are stories from many parts of the world of objects with curses on them that affect all those who come in contact with them. The most famous of these is a gorgeous, chilly blue-white gem known as the Hope Diamond, now housed at the Smithsonian; the Hope’s colorful backstory–save, perhaps, for the parts about its penultimate private owner, the lovely Evelyn Walsh McLean–is almost certainly made from the whole cloth.

Compared to the Hope Diamond’s legend, this tale of a cursed bowie knife is both commonplace and unsatisfactory, for it’s never explained how it came to be cursed. There is, however, a nasty little shock at the end. The story comes from Beth Scott and Michael Norman’s 1985 book HAUNTED HEARTLAND.

Peter and Jane Ambruster were a childless, fairly well-to-do couple from Topeka, Kansas. In 1929, they happened to attend an auction near their home at which one of the objects offered for sale was an antique bowie knife, that fearsome weapon popularized by Jim Bowie, who used one to kill a Louisiana sheriff in 1827.

This was not that knife, but it was quite a spectacular one. Said to be more than a century old, it was in near-mint condition, and possibly had never been used in a fight at all; with a handle covered in semiprecious stones, it would hardly have been practical. It resembled a presentation knife, more than anything.

The bidding on the knife was fast and furious, but in the end Peter Ambruster made the highest bid, and the auctioneer’s gavel came down: Sold!

The Ambrusters didn’t bid on anything else that day; they collected Peter’s purchase and were leaving the premises when they ran into a strange young man. Jane Ambruster would recall later that he had black hair and eyes and an oddly intense manner.

He wasted no niceties. “Mister,” he said earnestly, “I want to buy that knife from you. I’ll pay double what you just gave for it. You see–it’s a family heirloom.”

Peter shook his head. “Not interested in selling.”

The young man kept talking as if Peter had not spoken at all. “I don’t have the money today, but if you’ll let me take the knife, I’ll get it for you as quick as I–I have fifty dollars on me. I’ll give you that as security for the rest.”

“If you wanted it that badly, you should have bid on it, same as I did. Now good day to you.”

That was when, in our modern parlance, the young man lost it.

“Listen, mister, you don’t understand! That knife isn’t just any knife. It has a curse on it!”

Jane, already badly frightened, began tugging Peter away. Peter, however, repeated, “Not interested in selling.”

“The knife can bring riches to the owner–or bad luck–or even death.”

“Oh, for–” Peter laughed contemptuously. “No. Not for sale.”

The young man tried to hang onto their car as they got in and drove away. When they lost sight of him he was screaming, “I warned you! That knife will bring you only death!”

Jane, frankly, hated the knife, and wanted her husband to get rid of it; she was afraid the crazed young man might come to their home and cause trouble. Peter stubbornly refused to dispose of it, although to placate her he did lock it up in a strongbox and hid both the strongbox and the key.

And, for two years, nothing happened: no bad luck, no financial reverses (unusual in those early days of the Great Depression), no illnesses, no deaths. Peter occasionally would remind Jane of this, always with that scornful laugh.

Then one night, in late 1931, Jane was awakened by a gasping, choking sound from Peter’s side of their bed. Before she could react, he was dead of a massive heart attack.

Jane, numb with shock, made it through the ghastly rituals of funeral and burial. A month after Peter’s death, she paid a visit to their doctor. He was as deeply puzzled by Peter’s sudden death as she was, as he had never shown any symptoms of heart disease.

The doctor, at one point in the conversation, made the comment that Peter’s death was as sudden as if he had been stabbed to the heart.

And that was when Jane remembered the knife, in the strongbox at home.

Could it be–

She made some excuse to the doctor and raced home.

She found the key. She opened the strongbox.

There had been a tangle of objects in that strongbox, a few sentimental trinkets and objects of real value–a fancy gold pocket watch, her pearl necklace, Peter’s silver money clip–the day he put the knife in the box.

Those objects were still there.

The knife was gone.

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Now it’s known, simply, as the Nell Cropsey House. Back in the day, though, this lovely old home in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, near the banks of the Pasquotank River, was known as Seven Pines. It was from this house, on November 20, 1901, that a nineteen-year-old girl named Ella Maud Cropsey—called Nell by her family—disappeared after stepping out onto the porch at eleven PM to speak to her boyfriend, Jim Wilcox, and was never seen alive again. Dead is another story altogether.

The Cropseys—father, mother, and at least five children, the two eldest of whom were daughters Ollie and Nell—had moved to Elizabeth City from Brooklyn, New York, in 1898. The two lovely Cropsey sisters were promptly courted by two well-to-do young men from the town: Ollie by Roy Crawford, and Nell by Jim Wilcox, the son of the local sheriff.

It’s thought, possibly, that there was trouble brewing in the relationship between Nell Cropsey and Jim Wilcox on that November night. They had been “keeping company” for three years, and Nell, at least, seemed to be getting a bit restless. She was getting to an age of wanting to make a home of her own; Jim Wilcox, five years her senior, seemed in no hurry to propose marriage.

Jim Wilcox left Seven Pines a bit before eleven PM on November 20. He told Nell he wanted to speak to her outside, and she accompanied him out onto the front porch, pulling the door shut behind her. Ollie Cropsey would later report that she heard a loud thumping sound from the front porch just after Nell stepped outside, but nothing else. When Ollie’s suitor, Roy Crawford, left some forty-five minutes later, he reported, in answer to Ollie’s question, that he saw no sign of Nell or Jim in the front yard. Ollie—aware, perhaps, that all had not been well between Nell and Jim–was worried enough that she checked Nell’s bed, and found it empty. Still, she didn’t raise the alarm immediately; it was not until a neighbor roused the household a couple of hours later by shouting from the back yard “Cropsey, somebody’s stealin’ your hogs!” (there was a pigpen at the back of the house) that Ollie told her father, who was about to rush out with a shotgun, that Nell and Jim were out there somewhere. Arthur Cropsey, not sure whether he was angrier over the attempted pig theft or over his daughter being out in the dark with a young man not her husband in the wee hours of the morning, searched the premises thoroughly. No pigs were missing.

Nell and Jim Wilcox were.

At least, Nell was. Jim Wilcox was, within minutes of Cropsey summoning the police to search for Nell, rousted out of his bed at his father’s home, where he and his father swore he had been asleep since midnight. Young Wilcox told the police that he had left Nell crying on the front porch about 11:15 PM; he had broken off their relationship, returning her picture, which he had carried in his wallet from the time they met, and she was badly upset. He had gone, himself, to a nearby bar, had a beer with a friend, and was home by midnight.

The chief of police did not like the story the sheriff’s son told him; he had found an umbrella that Wilcox had also indicated he left with Nell, but the picture was nowhere to be found. (Nor was it ever.) He took Jim Wilcox into custody, and kept him there.

And there the matter lay. New information that was coming in indicated that there was far more to Jim Wilcox’s story than he let on, but nothing could be acted upon until Nell was found.

And she wasn’t, for nearly six weeks.

On December 6, a psychic calling herself Madame Snell Newman, from Norfolk, Virginia, showed up in Elizabeth City, leading the police on a merry chase around the countryside as she followed a “vision” she had had; in that “vision” Jim had chloroformed Nell, wrapped her in a blanket, taken her out into the country, killed her (Madame was vague as to the means), and dumped her body in an abandoned well. Despite a thorough search of all abandoned wells within a twenty-mile radius, Nell was not found. Madame’s vision did, however, cement local suspicions that Jim Wilcox had done away with—as she was now almost universally known—Beautiful Nell.

On December 24, an unsigned letter arrived in the Cropseys’ mail. Postmarked in Utica, New York, it indicated that Nell, after Jim Wilcox had left, had gone to investigate a noise she heard at the back of the house, found a man in the act of stealing her father’s pigs, and had been knocked unconscious; the man had put her on a boat and rowed away with her. The anonymous writer included a map of the section of the river adjoining Seven Pines, and marked with an X the place where Nell’s body would be found.

Nell’s mother had been in an awful state since her daughter’s disappearance. She couldn’t sleep, scarcely seemed to live at all. She had searched the riverbank daily—and, when she couldn’t sleep, nightly–for any signs of Nell’s body. Three days after the arrival of the letter from Utica, Mrs. Cropsey spotted something white floating in the water, and sent a man in a boat out to investigate. He came back with Nell’s body—found in almost the exact spot the letter had indicated on the map.

An autopsy revealed that Nell had not drowned; she had been killed by a blow to the head and her body placed in the water afterwards. That circumstance didn’t remind anyone of the story of the pig thief, from the letter; it reminded them that Jim Wilcox owned a blackjack.

Only the intervention of Arthur Cropsey saved Jim Wilcox from being lynched the night the body was found.

Jim Wilcox was tried in 1902 and sentenced to death; that verdict was overturned on appeal, and at a second trial he received a thirty-year sentence for second degree murder.

Nell was buried in a family plot back in Brooklyn, and the Cropseys left Elizabeth City forever following Jim Wilcox’s second trial. Mrs. Cropsey, so the story goes, lost her mind and died in an asylum; sister Ollie became a recluse; a brother committed suicide in 1913. Of all the collateral deaths and misfortunes to strike in the wake of Nell’s strange death, perhaps the strangest was that of Ollie’s former suitor, Roy Crawford; he shot himself to death in 1908—possibly, it’s been whispered, because he had, in fact, found Jim Wilcox standing over Nell’s dead body that night and had helped Wilcox move it to the river, then found himself unable to live with his guilt.

After serving seventeen years of his thirty-year sentence, Jim Wilcox was pardoned by Governor Thomas W. Bickett in 1920. He returned to Elizabeth City upon his release, arriving on Christmas Eve to find that he was ostracized by his former neighbors. He became a recluse and an alcoholic. In 1932, he approached the local newspaper editor, W. O. Saunders, with talk of writing a book about the Cropsey case; Saunders expressed interest, but Wilcox backed out. Two years later, after another talk with Saunders about the case, Jim Wilcox shot himself to death.

If he told W. O. Saunders the truth about November 20, 1901, and the death of Beautiful Nell Cropsey, then Saunders took the story to his own grave; he was killed in a car accident some three weeks after Wilcox’s suicide, without ever committing the story to paper.

Beautiful Nell, so they say, has never left the house known, in her day, as Seven Pines. It’s not known for certain when her silent spirit—she’s seen, but makes no sound–was first reported in the house. What is known is that, for many years now, a lovely girl in a white dress has been seen in what was, in 1901, Nell’s bedroom. She has also been seen in the front parlor, occasionally looking out the window that faces the porch onto which she stepped and vanished.

If only she could talk, perhaps at last the full story of her death would be known, and she could rest in peace.

I first ran across the story of Beautiful Nell Cropsey in John Harden’s THE DEVIL’S TRAMPING GROUND AND OTHER NORTH CAROLINA MYSTERY STORIES (1949). Additional information was found at Creepy NC and in Katherine Ramsland’s All About Psychic Detectives.

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We all probably have a list of albums that have either shaped us musically or moved us in our souls or set us dancing. Below is my list, which actually began life as a Facebook tag. If I get to running on TOO badly, somebody say ENOUGH, FAIR!!

Clannad, Banba

My friend Lily had sent me a tape of Eithne ni Bhraoinin–in English, that’s Enya–whom, to that point, I’d never heard. I learned afterward that she’s the younger sister and niece of the Brennans and Duggans of Clannad. I bought Banba on CD shortly thereafter. If you’ve never heard it, you need to–if only for the haunting “I Will Find You” which made a brief appearance in the Daniel Day-Lewis movie The Last of the Mohicans.

The Wilburn Brothers, Take Up Thy Cross

An old (1964 or thereabout) gospel release from my beloved Teddy and Doyle. The title track comes from a very old hymnal; others are either traditional gospel or covers, all of them good.

Marty Stuart, Tempted

Marty Stuart was my heartthrob, way back in the early nineties. He made two albums back to back (see the other below) that were damned near perfect. This one has a title track that reminds me no end of the late great Buddy Holly, but there’s not actually a bad track on it.

Chris Isaak, Heart Shaped World

The sexiest pop/rock tenor, bar none, in the world. I’m especially partial to “Kings of the Highway” and “Nothing’s Changed”, but it’s all good.

The Eagles, Long Road Out of Eden

I’ve gone on about this 2007 release from the Eagles, their first of all new music since 1980, before. Suffice it to say I was intrigued by the cover art, enthralled by the opening a capella track “No More Walks in the Wood”, and completely captivated by Don Henley and Steuart Smith’s “Waiting in the Weeds”. Yes, it does show in places that it was six years in the making, and I must reluctantly agree with Henley that some of the song choices aren’t that good, but shoot, it’s still the Eagles, right? Can’t beat that with a stick.

Emmylou Harris, Roses in the Snow

First time I ever heard Miss Emmy. She’s been my absolute favorite female singer ever since.

Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Trio

Lush harmonies and killer arrangements from three of the best. Nuff said.

Loreena McKennitt, The Mask and Mirror

Loreena McKennitt, The Book of Secrets

I actually heard The Book of Secrets, which was released later than The Mask and Mirror, first. Nevertheless, they’re my favorite McKennitt CDs. Romantic, hypnotic–for the percussion alone–and exotic, not quite like any other music I had ever heard to that point in my life. I especially love “The Highwayman” from The Book of Secrets and “The Mystic’s Dream” from The Mask and Mirror.

Doc Watson, On Praying Ground

Great tracks throughout this 1990 (I think that’s right) CD, but it includes my alltime favorite Christmas song, “Christmas Lullaby”, words by the great English hymnwriter Isaac Watts set to an 1835 tune by the great singing-school master William (Singin’ Billy) Walker. I’d recommend it for that song alone.

Chet Atkins, Teen Scene

Mostly early rock ‘n roll type instrumentals, with some vocals from the Anita Kerr Singers, eminently danceable. I’m not sure when it came out, but I’m thinking possibly early 1960s.

Bill Monroe, Master of Bluegrass

An all instrumental album from Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, c. 1980. Tucked away on side two, at the very end of the album, was Monroe’s austere, heartbreaking masterpiece “My Last Days on Earth”, written when he was facing potentially deadly cancer surgery and treatment. Wow. It still, thirty years later, packs an enormous punch.

Johnny Cash, Unchained

This is one of Cash’s albums made with Rick Rubin on American Recordings, after he was dumped by Columbia. The morning word came that Cash had passed (God, is it really seven years ago?), I played this CD. Never really stopped crying, either.

Delia Bell, Delia Bell

A native of Texas and a great bluegrass and trad country performer, Delia Bell got a shot on a major label in the 1980s when Emmylou Harris persuaded her label, Warner Brothers, to sign Bell. She made this single eponymous album for WB, which Emmylou produced and sang harmony on; Warner Brothers, for Lord knows what reasons of their own, did not promote it on its release. It’s a rarity, but one worth seeking out.

Marty Stuart, This One’s Gonna Hurt You

Marty followed Tempted with a second brilliant album which took its name from a duet with Travis Tritt. The best track on this one, though, is a little thing called “The King of Dixie” which is about Elvis and Hank Williams, brilliantly capturing both their careers in a verse each.

And a bonus sixteenth:

Thomas Hampson, Christmas with Thomas Hampson

My first, and still my favorite, Hampson CD. I’ve been known to listen to this one in the middle of summer. 😀

I’d love to hear about some of your favorite albums. Carry on in the comments section.

Plus one I somehow missed: Tim O’Brien, Two Journeys (Deux Voyages)

The second of O’Brien’s “midlife crisis” CDs (hey, he called The Crossing and Two Journeys that, not me), it’s got a couple of real clunkers, but O’Brien more than made up for those with a surpassingly spectral and spare duet (with Karen Kasey) of Child Ballad 243 “The Demon Lover” and covers of Balfa Toujours’ “Two Journeys (Deux Voyages)” (featuring Courtney Granger) and the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. That last is wonderfully quirky.

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These Hands

This song is old; I really have no idea how old it is, save that Hank Snow had a number five hit with it in 1956. Johnny Cash’s version comes from sometime later.

Having said that, this Labor Day it reminds me of some special people, though it’s sung from a working man’s point of view.

It reminds me of my maternal grandfather, for one, my fiddle-footed dreamer of a papaw, whose hands were callused with the work he did, work that he loved but that never brought him prosperity, and of my mamaw, whose plump little hands were never still.

It reminds me of our hardworking, gallant ladies who worked the machines back in my sewing factory days: ladies who bitched and moaned, laughed and cried together, who knew all of each other’s children, who worked hand in hand to take care of each other when the chips were down.

It reminds me of my dad, my brother, my brother-in-law, my sister and sister-in-law.

It reminds me of my buddy Auntie, canning, cooking, and cleaning.

It reminds me, most poignantly, of my mom, whose hands are now twisted and useless for all but the simplest tasks because of rheumatoid arthritis.

It reminds me of so many hands.

Lord above hear my plea, when it’s time to judge me
Take a look at these hard-workin’ hands. . .

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