Archive for the ‘True Crime’ Category

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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He wasn’t the first, the last, nor yet the most prolific serial killer of all time, but he’s probably the most notorious, with a nickname recognized almost globally: Jack the Ripper.

We can say with fair certainty that the Ripper was responsible for five murders of alcoholic prostitutes over a ten-week period between August 31 and November 9, 1888, in the Whitechapel district of London’s East End, although some “Ripperologists” argue that he was responsible for at least one more Whitechapel murder and has been touted as a suspect in crimes happening as far from London as New York City, St. Petersburg, Russia, Paris–and even Galveston, Texas!
Most of those suspicions, while intriguing, can’t quite be substantiated.

Whitechapel, as the Ripper and his victims knew it, has been all but obliterated by the German blitz of World War II and by massive demolition and reconstruction projects since the 1960s. Tour guides can take the curious to the new buildings that cover the sites of the Ripper’s five known murders, and describe how they were in that dreadful autumn of 1888 in such vivid detail that one almost feels transported back to that time and place.

Do the Ripper and his victims still walk, as ghosts, in Whitechapel? Stories suggest they do.

Mary Ann “Polly” Walker Nichols found dead in the gutter along Buck’s Row (later Durward Street) at 3:45 AM August 31, 1888.

The man who found Polly’s body thought at first that he had merely walked up on a heap of discarded clothing; a second recognized that it was a body, but not until they summoned a constable did anyone realize she was dead. The constable had passed that spot a mere thirty minutes earlier, walking his regular beat; Polly had not been there then.

She had died of a slashed throat and exsanguination. Only later, during an examination at the morgue, were the horrifying mutilations that would become the Ripper’s signature found, hidden by her clothes.

As early as 1895, there were reports that what appeared to be a heap of clothing could occasionally be seen on the spot where Polly died. It gave off a ghastly grayish light, and would slowly melt into the surrounding darkness. Dogs and horses, in those days, were known to shy around that place.

Eliza Ann “Dark Annie” Smith Chapman found dead in the back yard of Number 29, Hanbury Street, at approximately six AM on September 8, 1888, almost decapitated and badly mutilated.

Ill from tuberculosis, malnutrition, and alcoholism, Annie Chapman was, like Polly Nichols, out trying to earn the price of a bed. She was seen entering Number 29 with a man about an hour before her body was found.

There are more reports of ghostly phenomena surrounding Annie’s murder than any of the other Ripper victims. The back yard of Number 29, where she was found, was haunted for many years by sounds of struggle, panting, and something very like a body falling, followed by the sound of footsteps running out of the yard.

Annie had, as a wife and mother in her younger days, lived at Windsor. There have been reports of a woman’s ghost sitting on a wall near Windsor Barracks; some think this spirit is that of Annie Chapman, drawn back to a place where she was happy.

Perhaps the most intriguing sightings of Annie’s spirit–and possibly of her killer–were reported over a period of several years in the 1920s by a Whitechapel resident named Chapman (no relation). On at least four different occasions, usually in September and always early in the morning, Chapman saw a woman and man at the door leading into Number 29; the woman caught his attention because she wore shabby Victorian clothing, while the man wore a greatcoat and a wide-brimmed hat with a tall crown. Once, Chapman tried to point the odd pair out to his wife, who just missed seeing them, but pointed out that she should have been able to see the door closing behind them; only then did Chapman realize that he had never seen them open the door and go into Number 29. They always seemed just to pass through it without opening it. The last time he saw the pair, around 1930, he was accompanied by his brother, who saw nothing but heard footsteps, although no living person was walking past Number 29 at the time.

Number 29 was eventually knocked down and built over by the Old Truman Brewery. There were reports that a the shadow of a woman was seen on the wall of a storeroom when no woman was present; the storeroom was built over the place where Annie was found. And, on every September 8, it was said, the brewery’s boardroom would become icy cold–just about six o’clock in the morning.

Elizabeth Gustafsdottir “Long Liz” Stride found dead of a slashed throat in a court off Berner Street (later Henriques Street) at approximately 12:55 AM, September 30, 1888.

Some Ripperologists, citing the lack of the Ripper’s characteristic mutilations, do not think Stride was killed by the Ripper. More than likely, she was not mutilated because the killer was interrupted by the arrival of a man driving a horse and cart into the courtyard where she was found, and only just managed to slip away unnoticed. Liz had last been seen alive about 12:45 AM, talking with a man on Berner Street; she was found dead about ten minutes later.

At the time, her identity was in question. Although she was identified as Elizabeth Stride by Michael Kidney, with whom she shared a room on the notorious Flower and Dean Street, a woman named Mary Malcolm testified at the inquest on her death that she was actually Malcolm’s sister, Elizabeth Watts, who was, like Liz Stride, an alcoholic prostitute living in Whitechapel. Mrs. Malcolm also testified that, on that Sunday morning, she was awake at 1:20 AM when she felt a sudden heaviness on her chest, followed by three kisses, which she felt and heard, on her cheek. She knew then, she said, that her sister was dead.

Catherine Eddowes found dead in the southwest corner of Mitre Square in the square mile known as the City of London–a mere fifteen minute walk from the site of Elizabeth Stride’s murder–at about 1:45 AM September 30, 1888, horribly mutilated.

Catherine Eddowes had been incarcerated at the Bishopsgate Police Station from about eight PM on September 29, after being found “drunk and incapable” in the gutter. Released about one AM on the 30th, she apparently went out seeking a customer and was found dead about forty-five minutes later. A constable would testify that he had walked through Mitre Square at 1:30 and seen nothing untoward; when he returned some fifteen minutes later, he found Eddowes, newly dead, her body and face badly cut.

In a letter which may have been written by the Ripper himself, the deaths of Stride and Eddowes are referred to as a “double event”.

Mitre Square was haunted, for many years afterward, by the sound of screams and by an odd glowing apparition, head in the southwest corner and feet pointing outward toward the square. One couple reported seeing not only this apparition but also what appeared to be a man hurriedly leaving the square in the opposite direction. They approached the corner and thought at first that they were seeing a living woman and were about to summon police, thinking she might have been assaulted and left there by the man they had spotted when a group of young boys entered the square and began playing in that corner–now empty.

Mary Jane “Marie Jeanette” Kelly [Davies] last reported alive about 2:30 AM on November 9, 1888; found mutilated beyond recognition in the room she rented at Number 13 Miller’s Court off Dorset Street around eleven o’clock the same morning by a man coming to collect her arrears in rent. At the inquest, the coroner’s best guess was that she had been killed–probably in her sleep–between three and five AM.

The Miller’s Court site was reportedly haunted by ghostly screams and, on a staircase in a house built there thirty years after Mary Kelly’s appalling death, by the figure of a woman.

The family who occupied Number 13, Miller’s Court after Mary’s murder claimed that there was a bloody handprint on the wall above where Mary’s bed had been. They tried to cover the print with paint, tried to scrub it off, but were unsuccessful; they finally hid it behind a picture of the Crucifixion.

By far the most intriguing story of Mary’s spirit, though, was offered as testimony at the inquest following her death, by a woman named Caroline Maxwell. Maxwell, the wife of a man who ran a boarding house, said under oath that she had talked to Mary around eight AM on November 9–at which time Mary had, by the coroner’s estimate, been dead between three and five hours. Another witness, Maurice Lewis, purportedly spoke to Mary around 10 AM that same morning, in a pub.

The police dismissed these sightings because neither gave an accurate physical description of Mary Kelly, nor did they fit the time frame in which the murder was committed. It’s possible that Maxwell, who claimed to know Mary by sight, had seen her sometime prior to her death, but mixed up the date.

There’s a ghost story that comes from the banks of the River Thames; they say that around the first of December you can see the ghost of a man jumping into the river, and that that man was Jack the Ripper.

Most probably, the ghost seen there is of a Ripper suspect: the failed barrister Montague John Druitt, who, depressed over the loss of a job at the prestigious Blackheath School and fearing that he, like his mother, was doomed to become incurably insane, drowned himself in the river, some three weeks after Mary Kelly’s death; his body was pulled from the river on December 31, 1888.

Druitt was first mentioned as a Ripper suspect in 1894, but the evidence against him is thin at best.

Despite all theories and speculations, the Ripper remains unidentified to this day.

My primary source for ghosts of the Ripper is Peter Underwood’s 1987 book Jack the Ripper: One Hundred Years of Mystery.

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The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon the cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding, riding, riding,
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door. . .

So begins Alfred Noyes’s famous 1906 poem, “The Highwayman.” A beautiful, sensuous, moody piece that begins with a lovers’ meeting and ends in tragedy, it has been set to music more than once, by singers as diverse as Loreena McKennitt and the late Phil Ochs, and has served as a theme for a Fleetwood Mac video.

Noyes wrote very much in the tradition of the Victorian writers who preceded him, romanticizing those who made a living by robbing travelers along England’s highways, especially in the years before railroads replaced stagecoaches as the most popular means of travel. The great age of the highwayman lasted from roughly 1650 to 1850, and while a few of the self-styled “gentlemen of the roads” or “Knights of the High Toby” were indeed gentlemen, most were simply thugs. Most of them died either at the point of a pistol or on the end of a rope, and—need I say—many of them left ghosts, of themselves and, occasionally, their victims.

Possibly the most famous of all English highwaymen was Richard (Dick) Turpin, and no one of them was less deservedly so, for Turpin was a sociopath. Born in Hampstead in Essex in 1706, he was originally apprenticed to a butcher, and his earliest criminal activities involved thefts of sheep and cattle. Eventually, he became a member of a gang of Essex delinquents known as “Gregory’s Gang,” because, it appears, nearly half the members came from a family surnamed Gregory. Their depredations so infuriated the country people they were robbing that prices were placed on their heads, and all the members save Turpin were captured and hanged or transported to penal colonies.

Turpin turned to highway robbery. For awhile, he worked with a man named Tom King, who was that rarity—a true gentleman, despite his calling. In 1737, however, Turpin accidentally killed King in a shootout with thief-takers (bounty hunters of a sort) over the theft of a racehorse called White Stockings. King lived just long enough to tell authorities where all Turpin’s hideouts were, and Turpin, deciding to lay low for awhile, changed his name to John Palmer and hid out as a Yorkshire schoolmaster. Probably because that life was too dull for a sociopathic adrenaline junkie, he began stealing sheep, cattle and horses again, got in trouble over killing a game rooster that belonged to his landlord, was revealed to be the infamous Dick Turpin, and was hanged on September 10, 1739, on a charge going back to the theft of the racehorse.

Two stories about the ghost of Turpin will suffice:

While he was a member of the Gregorys Gang, he and some of his associates robbed an elderly woman named Shelley, who allegedly kept a large amount of money hidden in her house. When she did not immediately hand over the loot, the cretins tortured her by holding her bottom over the grate in the kitchen fireplace. Widow Shelley did not long survive her ordeal. After Turpin was hanged, it was said that, three times a year, his ghost was seen riding hell-for-leather down a long hill in front of the widow’s house with the ghost of his screaming victim clinging around his waist from behind.

Turpin has also been seen as a ghost on Hampstead Heath near London, where as recently as the last thirty years or so his horse almost ran down a jogger, just at twilight.

It was the Victorian novelist Harrison Ainsworth who turned Turpin from thug to hero in an 1834 novel called ROOKWOOD. Otherwise, Turpin’s evil exploits are best recounted in that compendium of eighteenth century crime known as the Newgate Calendar.

Another famous highway robber was, somewhat improbably, a woman. Lady Katherine Ferrers (1634-1660) has gone down in history as “The Wicked Lady of Markyate Cell.” Married at the age of fourteen to a man named Fanshawe, she allegedly took to a life of crime because she was bored. Dressed as a man, she worked first with a farmer named Chaplin. After he was captured and hanged, she continued on her own until she was mortally wounded by a would-be victim who fought back. Legend says that she had a secret hiding place in the ruins of a priory called Markyate Cell, in Hertfordshire, and that a servant found her dead body there. The scandal was hushed up, and she is said to be buried in holy ground.

Later historians have wailed that Lady Katherine was not the ruffianly woman of the legend, and that the crimes ascribed to her were actually committed by a woman named Martha Coppin. Nonetheless, Lady Katherine’s life of crime has been the subject of two feature films and inspired the Blackadder the Third episode “Amy and Amiability.” And it’s said that her ghost, dressed in a man’s black suit, can still be spotted in the trees alongside the road near Markyate Cell.

The U. S. had its highwaymen too. One of them, Joseph Thompson Hare, worked on the old Natchez Trace, both alone and occasionally as part of a gang, and while he has not returned in ghostly form, he once saw a ghost on the Trace. One night circa 1812 or 1813, Hare had just robbed a man on the Trace and was making a getaway when he saw the apparition of a white horse that appeared out of nowhere and vanished before Hare’s startled eyes. Hare, badly frightened, stopped overnight at a farmhouse instead of continuing his getaway, and was captured by a posse before morning. Put on trial and sentenced to five years in prison, Hare served his time but returned to his criminal ways and following a robbery on the road near Havre de Grace, Maryland was arrested and at last hanged for his crimes. Until the day he died, however, he talked about the spectral white horse he had seen on the Trace.

Which brings us back to where we started, for Noyes’s highwayman too returns as a ghost:

Still on a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon, tossed upon the cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding, riding, riding,
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn door. . .

to be met by his beloved Bess, also in ghostly form.

There are a number of entries online about Dick Turpin and Lady Ferrers. Other information can be found in the following books.

Supernatural England (1977), by Eric Maple

Haunted England (1987), by Terence Whitaker


Thirteen Mississippi Ghosts and Jeffrey (1974), by Kathryn Tucker Windham.

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May 21, 1924

I was walking home from school with some friends when a car pulled up beside us. There was a man I didn’t know at the wheel, and my cousin Dickie was calling to me from the back seat.

He wanted to talk about a new tennis racket, and offered me a ride home.

I almost didn’t get in the car.

If I’d known Cousin Dickie meant to kill me, I wouldn’t have.

Until it was eclipsed, some eight years later, by the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, the Bobby Franks case was America’s most notorious child murder. On that May day in 1924, Bobby Franks, the son of a wealthy Chicago businessman, was only fourteen.

His killers–Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb–were, respectively, eighteen and seventeen.

Leopold and Loeb were, we would say, spoilt rich kids. When it came crunch time, their “attorney for the damned”, the great Clarence Darrow, would make much of their backgrounds: showered with money rather than love, emotionally stunted, and way too much of their education unsupervised.

They were disciples of Friedrich Nietzsche’s superman philosophy, devoutly believing that they were smarter than the whole world around them. And, being smarter than all the world, believing that the rules that bind mere mortals didn’t apply to them, and with criminal tendencies to boot, they decided they would commit the perfect kidnapping and murder.

They made careful plans: they obtained a rental car, stole a typewriter on which to write a ransom note to Bobby Franks’ father, bought a chisel as a weapon and hydrochloric acid to blur their victim’s identity.

Initially, they planned to kidnap and kill Dickie Loeb’s kid brother, but gave that up when they realized it would be hard to collect the ransom–a mere ten thousand dollars, they asked for–right there under the Loebs’ noses.

They ended up choosing Bobby Franks, who was a distant cousin of Loeb’s, more or less at random.

I got into the front seat beside the man I didn’t know. Cousin Dickie called him “Babe”. We drove off.

A few minutes later, it was all over. Cousin Dickie hit me four times in the head, from behind, with some heavy hard instrument.

I bled out and died there in the front seat.

Can’t say for sure, but the last words I heard may have been Babe’s: Oh, God, I didn’t know it would be like this!

Leopold and Loeb took the body, eventually, to a culvert on 118th Street, near some railroad tracks. They stripped the corpse, poured hydrochloric acid on the face, then thrust it into the culvert.

Babe Leopold never noticed that he dropped his glasses.

And neither of them noticed that Bobby’s foot was sticking out from the culvert.

They went off and left me there, naked and my face obliterated by the acid. They didn’t think I’d be found right away.

They were wrong; I was found within twenty-four hours.

The murderous pair had been busy during those twenty-four hours. They had called the Franks house, using the alias George Johnson, and told Bobby’s mother her son had been kidnapped, but was safe; a ransom note would follow. They got rid of Bobby’s clothes and schoolbooks. They tried, as best they might, to wash the bloodstains out of the rental car. They even tried to establish an alibi, inventing two girls named May and Edna with whom they said they spent the evening.

It all went awry, of course. The Leopolds’ chauffeur caught them washing the car, and would later testify that said car had never left the garage that night, so they couldn’t have picked up the elusive May and Edna.

Worse yet, just about the time that the ransom note was being delivered–the clever Dickie had left it in a streetcar, where it was found and quickly, but not quickly enough, forwarded–to Jacob Franks, a railroad maintenance man found Bobby’s body.

Nearby, the police found a telltale pair of glasses.

I knew who my killer and his accomplice were, and within ten days, so did everybody else.

The glasses were an extremely rare pair; only three people in the Chicago area had glasses with such frames. One of those three was Nathan Leopold.

The chisel, the typewriter–all the paraphernalia of a murderous plot gone wrong were found, and within ten days, Leopold and Loeb were arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping.

America was howling for their blood.

Dickie Loeb’s family promptly disowned him. His father, his health, never especially robust, undermined by stress, was dead of a heart attack within two months of his son’s arrest.

It was up to Babe Leopold’s father to find someone willing to represent his son and his partner in crime.

They say Mr. Leopold went on bended knee to the one man who might have a chance to save his son’s, and Cousin Dickie’s, necks: Clarence Darrow, the Attorney for the Damned.

He offered Darrow a million dollars to save their lives.

A hundred times the value they placed on mine.

Darrow knew he couldn’t get the pair off scotfree. The best he could do was to get them prison sentences. Therefore, he opted for a bench trial, instead of putting his clients before a jury; he pled them guilty; he opted to present them as emotionally stunted, unloved, and twisted by that lack; and, he declared, he would, while the court was trying Leopold and Loeb, put capital punishment itself on trial.

I had been laid to rest in Rosehill Cemetery, where my family had a crypt. But already, as the trial of my killers began, there were whispers that I wasn’t resting well.

And he wasn’t. Bobby Franks’ spirit was beginning a long vigil.

Ater a thirty-three day trial before Judge John R. Caverly, Darrow won his case. His summation is quoted to this day, generally out of both literal and historical context:

I am pleading for the future. . .I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men, when we can learn by reason and judgment and understanding and faith that all life is worth living and that mercy is the highest attribute of man. . .

He won. Judge Caverly, while acknowledging the power of Darrow’s eloquence, said that he based the decision on the boys’ ages and the fact that Illinois had never executed anyone so young as them.

He handed down sentences of life imprisonment plus ninety-nine years for murder and kidnapping. Neither of the two was ever to be paroled, and they were to serve their sentences at Joliet, Illinois’ most notorious prison. And, he emphasized, they were to be kept apart for the rest of their lives.

Money talks, though, although not always to those to whom it’s owed; Clarence Darrow never received the full million Leopold’s father promised him–he got thirty thousand dollars, with a snide remark to the effect that Darrow should pay him for the privilege of distinguishing himself in this notorious case.

Dickie and Babe, meanwhile, although initially estranged from one another, patched up their differences and lived in luxury at Joliet: expensively furnished cells, meals cooked to their specifications (which they ate in a staff lounge), booze, drugs–the money bought them all. Leopold, an enthusiastic gardener, had his own garden plot, which the two visited frequently.

And still, Bobby Franks walked and played in Rosehill Cemetery: a young boy was repeatedly seen playing in the area of the Franks crypt. When he was approached, he would vanish.

Though they took my life, they had theirs, and their lives tethered me to earth.

I had a long wait ahead of me.

Dickie Loeb was killed in prison twelve years into his sentence, slashed to death in a shower in 1936.

Clarence Darrow died in 1938.

And then there was one. I held no grudge against Mr. Darrow, but Babe Leopold was still alive.

Despite Judge Caverly’s instructions, Nathan “Babe” Leopold was paroled in 1958, his cause taken up by, among others, the poet Carl Sandberg. Babe had been a model prisoner.

He moved to Puerto Rico, wrote a book called Life Plus 99, married a widowed florist, and worked as a lab technician.

And still, I waited.

Nathan Leopold died in 1971 of a heart attack. He was sixty-six years old.

And only then could I, forever fourteen, rest at last. The last tether holding me to earth was broken.

In Chicago, so they say, Bobby Franks haunted Rosehill Cemetery for forty-seven years. Since Nathan Leopold’s death, there have been no more reports of his spirit.


Jay Robert Nash, Bloodletters and Badmen, 1995 edition.

Crimes of the 20th Century: A Chronology. 1991

Richard T. Crowe and Carol Mercado, Chicago’s Street Guide to the Supernatural, 2000 (Richard Crowe, incidentally, has a connection to the Leopold-Loeb case and the murder of Bobby Franks; a relative of his, Robert E. Crowe, was the prosecutor at the bench trial.)

Purely as an exercise in style, I’ve written the story of Bobby Franks’ ghost in the manner of an episode of the Investigation Discovery Channel series Stolen Voices, Buried Secrets. Y’all decide if I succeeded or not. 🙂

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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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My blog buddy Barry, himself a first-class writer and storyteller, always liked my off-the-wall posts about history and such, so I think he’d get a kick out of this repost from last July.

I must confess that I have a sneaking fondness for the Depression-era outlaw John Dillinger. Bank robber, prison escapee and ruthless killer he may have been, but Dillinger had style and wit. (You gotta love a man who called Bonnie and Clyde “clodhoppers who give decent bank robbers a bad name.”)

On July 22, 1934, Dillinger died in a hail of bullets fired by FBI agents outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater. Or did he?

Some claim the death was faked to cover up the fact that Dillinger had gotten away clean from his nemesis, Melvin Purvis and to avoid embarrassment for FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

The basic outline of the story, which I first read in crime historian Jay Robert Nash’s 1995 edition of his encyclopedic Bloodletters and Badmen, goes something like this:

Dillinger’s myriad escapes and spectacular bank robberies, his style and wit, were making a hero of him in some quarters, including some of the print media of the day. In turn, this made the FBI look incompetent, especially following a shootout during a raid on a Dillinger hideout in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, in April 1934, in which the entire Dillinger gang got away unscathed but three civilians, totally uninvolved in the raid, were shot dead by FBI agents. Will Rogers, the legendary humorist, joked following that debacle that the only way the FBI would ever kill Dillinger was if he got caught in the midst of a crowd of innocent bystanders.

All things considered, there was much pressure, especially from Hoover, to eliminate Dillinger. The story to this point is straightforward: a friend of Dillinger’s girlfriend was threatened with deportation as an illegal immigrant if she didn’t give Dillinger’s whereabouts up. This woman, Anna Sage, agreed to help. She was the “lady in red” who accompanied Dillinger and girlfriend Billie Frechette to the Biograph on July 22, 1934, to see the new Clark Gable picture Manhattan Melodrama. The FBI fired on the man with whom Frechette and Sage left the theater. He was killed and identified as Dillinger.

Nash, however, claims that he was told by an oldtimer who knew Dillinger that the dead man who was identified as Dillinger was actually a small-time hood named Jimmy Lawrence. In this scenario, Dillinger had gotten wind of the plot against him and vanished, and Billie Frechette was accompanied to the theater that night by Lawrence, who bore a vague physical resemblance to Dillinger. The oldtimer also claimed that the autopsy done on “Dillinger” proved he did not have scars Dillinger was known to have from past run-ins with the law; that the dead man had an undiagnosed heart ailment which Dillinger did not have; and that the dead man had brown eyes, while Dillinger’s were a vivid blue.

The one thing the theory does not cover, in short, is this: Nobody ever heard a peep out of Dillinger again. It seems surpassingly strange that a career criminal like him would desert his profession–and his sardonic pleasure in making fools of the law–and settle down to a quiet life in suburbia.

So, it seems, the man who died in an alley outside the Biograph was Dillinger after all.

But it does make a heck of a story.

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