Archive for January, 2012

There are those who say she’s a ghost: a lady dressed all in black, her face concealed by a black veil, who brings flowers to the crypt where lies the body of the great silent film star Rudolph Valentino. This lady–or, at least, a lady–has performed this ritual every August 23 since 1927, the one year anniversary of Valentino’s unmercifully early death.

She’s no ghost, though. The duty has been performed, more or less officially, by three living women in succession since then.

Born Rodolfo Guglielmi in Italy in 1895, Valentino was sent to the United States in 1913 after a troubled childhood and adolescence. He made his way in New York City as an exhibition dancer (a skill that stood him in good stead during his movie career), busboy, and, rumor has it, a gigolo. He moved to Hollywood in 1919, changed his name to Rudolph Valentino, and began to appear in small parts in films, usually cast as the villain–thanks to his dark good looks. He became a major star in 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, playing a French-Argentinian playboy who dies in WWI; this part led to his iconic role in the eponymous The Sheik.

His career did not last long; on August 15, 1926, he collapsed in a New York City hotel and died eight days later of peritonitis following a perforated ulcer.

At the time of his death he was allegedly engaged to the actress Pola Negri, following on two failed marriages. Negri (1897-1987) certainly seems to have been devastated by Valentino’s death; she fainted several times during his funeral. She also claimed, in her later years, to have been the black-clad, veiled lady who first placed flowers at his crypt in 1927.

Romantic though her claim may be, though, Negri was not the first Lady in Black. That honor falls to a girl who took it as a commission from Valentino himself.

In 1947, a woman named Ditra Flame (pronounced fla-MAY, 1912-1984) revealed that she was the original Lady in Black. Her mother was a friend of Valentino’s. When Ditra was a young girl, she was hospitalized for a serious illness, and Valentino came to visit her. At that visit, she said, Valentino asked her to come to his grave to visit him once he was dead, for he did not wish to be alone. Ditra recovered, and when Valentino died some years later, she–by then a teenager–kept her promise to him, first going to the crypt, in black and bearing flowers, on August 23, 1927. She only revealed her status as the original Lady in Black after a former showgirl named Marian Watson–who, like Pola Negri, claimed to have been Valentino’s fiancee–claimed she was the Lady in Black. In later years, Flame stopped wearing black clothes on her anniversary visits to Valentino’s crypt. As the legend grew, vast numbers of women in black would show up each August 23rd, rendering Flame somewhat superfluous.

A disgusted Flame discontinued her annual visits in 1954. In the wake of Elvis Presley’s death in 1977, she took up the tradition again, continuing her visits to Valentino’s crypt from then until her death in 1984. She is identified on her tombstone as the Lady in Black.

A woman named Estrellita del Regil began to visit Valentino’s grave in the early 1970s, and is generally accepted as the second “official” Lady in Black when she continued the role after Flame’s death. Del Regil also claimed that her mother, Anna Maria Carrascosa (1910-1973), had been the original Lady in Black, and that she was continuing a family tradition; this claim is not generally accepted. She continued in the role until 1993, when illness forced her to give it up. Del Regil passed away in 2001.

Since 1995, an actress named Vicki Callahan has been the “official” Lady in Black, and so identifies herself on her website.

And the list goes on. In addition to the no longer active Poe Toaster and Valentino’s Lady in Black, there was long a royal mystery: who was placing two dozen red roses on Anne Boleyn’s grave on the anniversary of her death?

Anne, the second wife of the infamous Henry VIII of England, was convicted on charges of treason, adultery, incest and witchcraft (her true crime being her failure to bear Henry the sons he craved) and executed on May 19th, 1536. Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, on May 19th of each year, someone began placing two dozen red roses on Anne’s grave beneath the floor of the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London.

The roses have been found, each anniversary, for more than one hundred fifty years now. In the last decade, however, it has been revealed that descendants of the Boleyn family began paying a London florist in the 1850s or thereabout to deliver the roses. Their descendants have continued the tradition, although it’s done nowadays by a different florist!

It’s also said–if Wikipedia is to be believed–that Valentino’s Lady in Black was one source of inspiration for the classic country song “The Long Black Veil,” written by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill in 1959.

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For sixty years, around 3:00 AM on January 19th, a man in a black frock coat and fedora, with a scarf obscuring his face, would walk into the grounds of the Westminster Hall and Burial Ground, at the corner of Fayette and Greene Streets in West Baltimore. He proceeded briskly to a stone at the back of the cemetery, which marks the site where the body of Edgar Allan Poe rested from April to November 1875. There the man in black toasted Poe with cognac and ceremoniously placed three red roses and a half-bottle of the cognac on the empty grave. Then he would vanish into the darkness, not to be seen for another year.

This man became known, internationally and affectionately, as the Poe Toaster. He carried out his memorial ritual every January 19th, no matter what the weather, from 1949 to 2009.

The great American horror writer, Edgar Allan Poe, was born in Boston on January 19th, 1809, and died in Baltimore on October 7, 1849, at the age of forty. He was buried in a family plot, but the stone that marked this original grave was accidentally destroyed almost immediately after it was placed. The grave remained unmarked until 1875, when local schoolchildren took up a collection to buy a grave marker for it. That marker, which now marks Poe’s permanent grave at the front of the cemetery, was too large to fit in a tight space; it overlapped the grave of Poe’s grandfather. Poe was moved temporarily to an empty space in the Poe plot, where he remained until November 17, 1875, when he was reinterred for the third (and hopefully final) time, and his new grave marked with the overlarge stone. The former site was left unmarked until the 1930s, when it was decided to mark the original again; unfortunately, a misreading of the church records led to the marker, a fine one with a carved raven at the top, being placed on Poe’s second grave instead of the original one.

The Poe Toaster went to the second marker, so he may have mistaken the second for the original grave. It is not known what the three red roses symbolize, although they may be placed in memory of Poe, his child bride Virginia Clemm (whom he married when she was thirteen), and his beloved mother-in-law, Maria Clemm. As for the cognac, the Toaster (who left notes at the site on several occasions; see below) once wrote (it is) with great respect for the family tradition that the cognac is placed. Whether this was in keeping, somehow, with Poe tradition or the Toaster’s family tradition is up for grabs.

Once, many years ago, the Toaster left a note that read, simply and elegiacally, Edgar, I haven’t forgotten you. In 1993, one was left that read The torch will be passed. In 1999, a note was found after his visit that indicated the original Poe Toaster had died in 1998, and the tradition would be carried on by his son.

A Baltimore Sun article published on August 15, 2007, proclaimed 92-year-old Sam Porpora of Baltimore, a onetime caretaker at the cemetery, had begun the tradition. Unfortunately, much of the material Porpora gave the interviewer was lifted almost verbatim from a 1976 article in the Sun about the Toaster. His claim was dismissed by Jeff Jerome, for thirty-odd years the curator of Baltimore’s Poe House and Museum (allegedly haunted by Poe and possibly his grandmother, Elizabeth Poe), who noted that Porpora’s account had “holes so big you could drive a Mack truck through them.”

So we still don’t know the identity of the Poe Toaster, except to say that the original carried out his ritual for nearly fifty years before passing it on, putatively, to his son, for another eleven years. Only once, in all this time, was he photographed; in 1990, in a one-time-only event, Jeff Jerome (who attended to watch the Toaster faithfully beginning in the 1970s) allowed a photographer to take one picture. It depicted a heavyset man in black.

The Poe Toaster last made an appearance on the two hundredth anniversary of Poe’s birth in 2009.

Dang, I wish somebody had kept the tradition up!

Thanks to certain details in the story, I wonder if the Toaster was not originally inspired to undertake his obligation by the legendary Lady in Black who for many years has placed flowers by the crypt of the silent film actor Rudolph Valentino. But that’s a whole other story–

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. . .to complete an emergency crocheting project!

Unless things get spectacularly weird somewhere before then (like maybe a Friday Fright) will see you next Wed.

Love & hugs, Faire

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Back in 2009, round about a Friday the thirteenth, when I was blogging on the now defunct Blogstream, my friend Whit wrote a post about superstitions pertaining to the number thirteen, which inspired this post.

Now me, I’d just as soon stay in bed on Friday the thirteenth, but what caught my attention was Whit’s mention of hotels that do not have a thirteenth floor, skipping directly from number twelve to number fourteen. The great British ghost story writer M. R. James extends this superstition even to room numbers, in his story “Number Thirteen“, which features a room at an inn that was walled up, and other rooms renumbered, after its occupant made a deal with the devil.

Needless to say, this sort of grim idea is not one one would associate with the American light-verse poet Ogden Nash, but in 1955 he wrote a peculiarly chilling long poem about that very subject: A Tale of the Thirteenth Floor. Oddly enough, Nash’s internal rhymes and couplets give this piece an icy malevolence that make you forget his charming double-edged whimsies.

The opening stanzas set the scene: an irate father is in a “midtown” Manhattan hotel, seeking the vile seducer of his daughter, a gangster and gambler called Pinball Pete. He is intercepted by the elevator operator, an oldtimer named Maxie, who agrees to help him find Pete. But the elevator stops at a hellish place: the Thirteenth Floor, where murderers and victims party eternally, linked to each other with chains. Max explains:

. . .”Thirteen, that floor obscene,
Is hidden from human sight,
But once a year it doth appear,
On this Walpurgis Night.

(Walpurgis Night, April 30, is sometimes referred to as “the other Halloween,” being a night when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is said to be thinnest.)

Nash gives the poem extraordinary vividness by using the names of actual victims and criminals, most of them from the wide-open days of the nineteen-teens, twenties and thirties, some still famous in our day, others whose deaths were sensational at the time but are virtually forgotten by all save true crime buffs in ours. The first he mentions is “Dr. Waite,” who was executed circa 1916 for killing his hapless inlaws; he gave them diphtheria by putting germ cultures in their drinking water. He mentions Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, executed in 1928 for the murder of Snyder’s husband. Arnold Rothstein, who “fixed” the 1919 World Series and was found dying in a service entrance at a hotel, shot in the stomach, in 1928, after allegedly welshing on a bet, is still looking for a game of poker:

He riffles the pack, riding piggyback
On the killer whose name he hid. . .

The last and most pathetic victim is a young woman named Starr Faithfull, found drowned on New York’s Long Beach in 1931, in circumstances that have never been explained; evidence, however, points to foul play.

The father, meanwhile, is so horrified by what he sees that he decides to leave Pinball Pete to the fate that is bound to come to him someday; he’s not about to risk his immortal soul. Only then does he learn that Maxie, too, belongs to that dreadful crowd:

“For you I rejoice,” said Maxie’s voice,
“And I bid you go in peace,
But I am late for a dancing date
That nevermore will cease. . .”

I cannot remember for the life of me when I first read this poem, although it must have been a good twenty years or more ago. I will say this: it gives me goosebumps, even to this day.

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Poison Love

Into each life a love is born for one and one alone, dear/The one I chose was surely not for me. . .(from “Poison Love”, by Johnny Wright and Jack Anglin, aka the country music duo Johnnie and Jack, 1951)

Into Mary Blandy’s life, there was indeed one love born–and, as is sadly not infrequent, the love she chose was wrong–so wrong it cost her her life.

Mary Blandy was born about 1720 in the little Oxfordshire town of Henley-upon-Thames, the only daughter of attorney and town clerk Francis Blandy and his wife. She was possessed, as the prim phrase goes, of considerable personal advantages: tall, black-haired and dark-eyed, with a figure like a goddess, well-educated and charming.

She was still unmarried in her mid-twenties, though, which apparently caused her doting father some distress. He made an unwise boast that he would give Mary ten thousand pounds dowry, which of course would become the fortune of her husband under the laws of the time.

There were suitors, but for one reason or another all of them were rejected until, when she was twenty-six, Mary met the man of her dreams: Captain William Henry Cranstoun, the nephew of a Scots nobleman.

God only knows what Mary Blandy saw in him. Cranstoun was twenty years her senior, shorter than her, heavyset and with a bad squint. He was also hideously scarred by smallpox. Worse yet, he had little income save his military pay and was desperately in debt.

Probably it was his charm and smooth line of patter that captured Mary.

Her father detested Cranstoun, and with good reason; when his noble uncle learned that Cranstoun was paying assiduous court to Mary, he warned Francis Blandy that Cranstoun was already married to a Scotswoman, by whom he had several children.

Over the course of the next five years, Cranstoun tried by both legal means and strongarm tactics to get his Scots wife to disavow their marriage to free him to marry his English heiress. From sheer exhaustion Anne Murray Cranstoun finally gave up her claim to be his lawful wife–only to have that claim overturned by a Scots court.

Meanwhile Mary Blandy and her father were at odds continually over her quite irrational affection for Cranstoun.

In mid-1751, Cranstoun hatched a plan. He set it in motion by sending Mary a gift of “Scotch pebbles”–semiprecious stones more commonly known as agates.

Along with the Scotch pebbles, he sent a powder. The powder was accompanied by a letter marked “powder to clean the Scotch pebbles”, but in the body of the letter Cranstoun instructed Mary that the powder was a love potion–not for her, but for her father. Cranstoun told her to sprinkle it on his food and it would magically change his opinion of his daughter’s suitor.

Mary did so.

The powder did not change Francis Blandy’s opinion of Cranstoun. In fact, it killed him.

The powder to clean the Scotch pebbles was arsenic, and Mary continued to add it to her father’s food even as his health deteriorated alarmingly.

Francis Blandy died on August 14, 1751. He was sixty-two.

His fortune, at probate, turned out to be some four thousand pounds–still considerable, but far short of the ten thousand he’d offered to the man who won his daughter’s hand.

The Blandy servants lost no time in telling the doctor who attended him in his extremity and the local authorities about Miss Mary’s “love potion”, and she was promptly placed under house arrest. One day, she found a door unlocked and went out for a walk, only to find herself chased by a mob across the border into Berkshire, where an innkeeper named Mrs. Davis took her in to save her life.

Thereafter, she was remanded to prison. At trial, on March 3, 1752, she insisted that she had given the powders to her father but had had no idea they were poisonous.

The court was dubious. She was convicted, and sentenced to hang. Her sentence was carried out on Easter Monday, April 6, 1752. After exhorting officials “Gentlemen, don’t hang me high for the sake of decency!” (she apparently feared the vast crowd that came to see her “turned off” would try to look up the skirts of her black sacque dress) and expressing a fear that she might fall if she mounted the ladder to the top of the scaffold, she covered her face with a black kerchief and signaled the hangman to drop her by dropping a prayerbook.

Cranstoun, the hound, never faced earthly justice; he ran off first to Scotland, then, under an assumed name, made his way to France, where he died in July, a bare three months after Mary.

As one might guess, Mary Blandy has not rested in peace. Sightings of her ghost have been reported at several places. At her old home in Henley-upon-Thames, she is said to stand under a mulberry tree in the back garden, accompanied by a male figure; it has never been ascertained whether her companion is the father she murdered or the lover who enticed her to murder, then deserted her.

Her spirit has also been reported at the Little Angel Inn, where the kindly Mrs. Davis saved her from a lynch mob. In Churchfield Wood, near Turville, she’s said to ride a white horse through the woods; horse and rider vanish without a trace.

In 1966, her trial was re-enacted in Henley’s Town Hall. During the re-enactment, several cast members reported that they spotted a tall young woman in a black eighteenth-century dress at the back of the courtroom; when approached, she invariably disappeared.

Three years later, a local theatre company put on a production of The Hanging Wood, a play about Mary Blandy written in 1950 by playwright and author Joan Morgan. (The story goes that the play was only put on once–in this 1969 production–and received such poor reviews it was never played onstage again after that first performance. Tough crowd–)

Several of the cast members of the play had also been involved in the 1966 trial re-enactment, and reported that, during rehearsals for the play, the production was plagued by poltergeist activity–doors opening and closing, lights going on and off, a mirror that jumped off the wall and was smashed on the floor–and also by sightings of the woman in black who had appeared–and disappeared– in the courtroom in 1966.

I wonder if Mary Blandy’s still trying to tell the world that she just wanted her father to approve of the man whom she loved, and never meant him harm.

I have a feeling the world’s still dubious. (^_^)

There are a number of websites with more information about Mary Blandy’s life, trial and death. One of the more interesting is the account from the contemporary compendium of true crime, the Newgate Calendar.

Other information comes from the late Peter Haining’s 2008 book The Mammoth Book of True Hauntings.

Sorry to be so late posting today but I’ve had to do it between thunderstorms–we’ve had three in Knobite Corner today–

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Maybe this little story caught my attention because, not so long ago, little ones were leaving out cookies and milk to tempt Santa–Could be.

In the Far East, several countries have Hungry Ghost festivals, at which the ghosts of ancestors are invited to share in a party atmosphere to prevent them from haunting descendants throughout the year.

Either way, this story, told for true, points out there might be something to the idea of feeding a ghost to starve a haunting. . .

In 1963, an item appeared in an Ilford, Essex (UK) newspaper about an elderly lady who had found a novel way of getting rid of a ghost. She lived on Perryman’s Farm, in a house which was plagued by periodic outbreaks of poltergeist activity.

Normally, poltergeist hauntings don’t last long; the “noisy ghost” most often breaks out when there’s a girl–or more rarely, a boy–in the house entering puberty or early adolescence, and are done within days, months, or a couple of years at most. At Perryman’s Farm, though, this had been a complaint of successive tenants over an astounding half-century.

In 1963, though, a tenant found a solution.

Her name was Doris Freeman. She was in her eighties, and she quickly tired of having her sleep interrupted by her racketing fellow tenant.

She began, on a nightly basis, to leave a beer and a meal out on the kitchen table for the ghost. She explained that yes, this might sound strange, but there is an ancient tradition that says a well-fed ghost is a happy one.

And, as of that report in 1963, Mrs. Freeman had slept without disturbance for several straight weeks, which she had apparently been unable to do before her culinary exorcism.

Unfortunately, the newspaper account–summarized in the late Peter Haining’s The Mammoth Book of True Hauntings (2008) says nothing more about Mrs. Freeman’s experiment, so we don’t know whether A) the food and beer actually turned up eaten and drunk in the mornings and B) whether she continued to sleep undisturbed.

I wonder if the unseen houseguest who calls my name and wakes me many a night is just hungry–

Having said which, I don’t think I’ll start leaving out meals. With my luck, I’d be sure to attract rats.

Talk about a racket. . .(^_^)

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Actually, I began my New Year’s resolutions early. One of them was get up at 7 AM! Don’t turn off alarm!

That one works best, I think, if I translate it into the old adage early to bed and early to rise. It certainly is healthier, although I have my doubts that it will make me wealthy and wise anytime soon–

In any case, bearing all that in mind, and knowing I had nobody to kiss at midnight except Blackadder, who hates kisses (sigh), I was tucked in and lights out by 11:45 PM and up at 7:04 AM. Not bad for a beginning, huh?

As for others:

To cook more; learn more recipes for entrees, and eat more fruits and vegetables.

To finish my cleaning project. It’s been in its agonal stages long enough. Let’s put the sucker out of our mutual misery.

Keep a crochet journal. Preferably with pictures. Even though I may have to sketch the pics for a while.

Sing more. Dance a lot. Laugh a lot. Cry a little.

(I sing fairly well and–drama queen that I am–laugh and cry a lot, but it’s time to shut the waterworks down to a trickle lest I flood my world. Having said which, though, if you’ve ever seen me dance, you’d realize that is major.

Take an occasional risk. It’s stamped on my forehead, honestly: World’s Biggest Wimp. When it comes to taking risks, I am. I may start small–like sending somebody totally off the wall a Facebook friend request (this would not be an issue if the dude allowed subscribers)–but it could make life more interesting!

My major resolutions, though, have to do with what seems to be my real passion, if not vocation, in life: writing.

So: I have resolved to spend two hours a day developing a number of story ideas that I’ve had bouncing around my brain–some for donkey’s years–to full length. As it happens, I have a couple of hours–between 2 PM and 4 PM–when there’s not much else going on; Mom’s in between breathing treatments then, we’ve had lunch, and by getting up on schedule I can have my housework done by then.

I will keep up my blog, of course; I’m too big an egotist to give it up. However, I will be posting new stuff only one or occasionally two days a week, on Wednesdays and one other day as the spirit moves me.

Except of course for October, when we will embark on Faire’s Fifth Annual 31 Days of Halloween, if the good Lord’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise, as Ol’ Hank used to say.

Now let’s see how many of these I can keep. 😀

Happy New Year, y’all– ❤

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