Mike and Tobye Madison of Baytown, Texas, had two odd experiences in January 1984: Their house was burglarized, and Baby, their exotic talking bird, began saying “Come here, Robert. Come here, Ronnie.”
“When the lady told me about it I almost broke up,” Baytown police detective Reggie Harper told the Associated Press. “I almost didn’t write it down.”
Apparently Baby, a female yellow-headed Amazon, was repeating the words of the intruders. This helped police identify two men and a 16-year-old boy and charge them with a series of house burglaries involving the loss of $50,000 in property.
Forty years earlier, the same thing had happened in New York.
In July 1833 the Earl of Stamford and Harrington received a letter signed “Martha Turner.” “It is with shame, indescribable shame, I presume to address your Lordship with these lines,” she wrote, “but from having a knowledge of your Lordship’s person from my infancy, and through the report of your Lordship’s sympathising and benevolent character, I am about entrusting a most unfortunate affair to your Lordship’s honour and secrecy.”
She had left her widowed mother at Christmas, she said, with a man who had promised to marry her but had left her “ruined and undone.” She begged for “a small pecuniary assistance,” pleading with the earl to rescue her “from entire destruction” and “a miserable death.”
Martha Turner didn’t exist. Her appeal was contrived and arranged by Joseph Underwood, one of about 250 letter-writing impostors who plagued England’s wealthy in the 1830s. Underwood had invented and written Martha’s letter in a woman’s hand, and he forged corroborating messages from her supposed seducer and from a clergyman supporting her story.
Underwood earned nearly £1,000 a year at this, which apparently made his frequent incarcerations worthwhile. “If the faculty of creation be one of the principal attributes of genius,” wrote John Grant in 1838, “Underwood was a genius of the first magnitude. The force and felicity of his imaginative facts were remarkable. Had he turned his attention to novel-writing, instead of to the profession of a begging-letter impostor, there is no saying how high his name might at this moment have stood in the current literature of the country.” Underwood chose otherwise — he died in Coldbath Fields Prison in 1838.
A Mr. Smith was attacked at night, about a fortnight ago, in the neighbourhood of Hexam, by three men, who dragged him from his horse, and threw him on the ground face downwards. They made no attempt to rob him, nor did they utter a syllable. Mr. Smith also held his tongue until feeling the teeth of a saw enter into the flesh at the back of his neck, he exclaimed — ‘What are you doing with me?’ On hearing his voice, one of the men observed with an oath — ‘It is not him!’ And all three immediately departed. These barbarians had obviously been upon the look-out for some object of revenge, whom they had intended to destroy by means of the instrument we have mentioned.
– The Times, Dec. 19, 1821
Indiana had a sumptuary law prohibiting the smoking of cigarettes, and a showman was exhibiting a trick chimpanzee in a country town in the vicinity of South Bend. One of the tricks of this animal was to smoke a cigarette, for which he was arrested and brought before a justice of the peace. His keeper pleaded that the animal did not know that he was violating the law, but the justice solemnly replied that ignorance of the law excuses no one, and the chimpanzee was fined five dollars which his keeper paid.
– American Law Review, January-February 1920
In 1880 a man calling himself Smith opened an office and a bank account in London and purchased stationery reading “Henderson & Co., Ship Brokers.” Later that year another man approached a Glasgow chandler to order a large quantity of stores — he explained that Smith had chartered the steamer Ferret for a Mediterranean cruise. Henderson & Co. and the bank vouched for Smith, so the chandler filled the order.
The ship steamed to Cardiff, where it picked up Smith and a crew of strangers. On Nov. 11 it sailed through the Strait of Gilbraltar, showing its number, and then vanished. When some of the ship’s casks were found floating in the Mediterranean, the underwriters paid for a total loss.
A water policeman in Queenscliff, Australia, happened to be reading about this in a Glasgow newspaper on April 19 when he noticed the arrival of a steamer strangely similar to the Ferret. The India‘s hull was black, its boats white, and its funnel red, but the resemblance was otherwise striking. He notified the authorities, who seized the ship, where they noted that the Ferret‘s official numbers had been chipped off the hatch.
The ensuing investigation showed that after passing Gibraltar, the criminals had repainted the steamer, tossed the casks overboard, covered their lights and stole back through the strait, whence they had made for Cape Town and then for Australia.
Two of the pirates served seven years’ hard labor and the third three and a half years. “But for the copy of the Scotch paper falling into the hands of the Queenscliff policeman,” recalled The Age in 1930, “the identity of the vessel would probably never have been discovered.”
When Jesse James’ gang robbed a Missouri train in 1874, they left this note with the conductor:
THE MOST DARING ON RECORD!
The south bound train on the Iron Mountain Railroad was robbed here this evening by five heavily armed men, and robbed of —– dollars. The robbers arrived at the station a few minutes before the arrival of the train, and arrested the station agent and put him under guard, then threw the train on the switch. The robbers were all large men, none of them under six feet tall. They were all masked, and started in a southerly direction after they had robbed the train. They were all mounted on fine blooded horses. There is a h— of an excitement in this part of the country.
Understandably, it was false in one particular — they rode west.
This is Francisco Goya’s painting Portrait of the Duke of Wellington.
In 1961 it was stolen from the National Gallery in London.
In 1962 it turned up again — it hangs in Dr. No’s lair in the first James Bond film.
On Oct. 17, 1941, 73-year-old Philip Peters was found bludgeoned to death in the kitchen of his Denver home. All the doors and windows were locked. His wife, who had been away at the time, returned to the home with a housekeeper, and both heard strange sounds throughout the ensuing weeks. Finally both moved out.
Police were checking on the vacant house the following July when they heard a noise on the second floor. An officer ran upstairs in time to see a man’s legs disappearing through a small trapdoor in the ceiling of a closet.
The trapdoor led to a narrow attic cubbyhole in which 59-year-old Theodore Coneys had been living for 10 months. He had broken into the house the previous September and had been living silently in the attic for a month when Peters discovered him one night at the refrigerator. After the murder he’d returned to the cubbyhole and had remained there ever since.
He confessed to the crime and was sentenced to life in prison.
As the lower animals were anciently amenable to law in Switzerland, so, in peculiar circumstances, they could be received as witnesses. A similar law, it appears, is still, or was to a very late period, recognised in Savoy. If a man’s house was broken into between sunset and sunrise, and the owner of the house killed the intruder, the act was considered a justifiable homicide. But it was considered just possible that a man, who lived all alone by himself, might invite or entice a person, whom he wished to kill, to spend the evening with him, and after murdering his victim, assert that he did it in defence of his person and property, the slain man having been a burglar. So when a person was killed under such circumstances, the solitary householder was not held innocent unless he produced a dog, a cat, or a cock that had been an inmate of the house, and witnessed the death of the person killed. The owner of the house was compelled to make his declaration of innocence on oath before one of these animals, and if it did not contradict him, he was considered guiltless, the law taking for granted the Deity would cause a miraculous manifestation by a dumb animal rather than allow a murderer to escape from justice.
– William Jones, Credulities Past and Present, 1880
Thirty-year-old Polish laundryman Isidor Fink lived and worked in a large room on the ground floor of a tenement block on East 132nd Street in New York. Every door and window was secured with bars, bolts, and locks. Fink sublet two rooms at the rear to an elderly woman, but the door to these rooms was permanently bolted shut on both sides.
On March 9, 1929, Fink returned home at 10:15 p.m. At 10:30, the tenant heard screams and the sound of blows. She summoned a policeman, who found all the doors locked. Finally he sent a small boy through the transom to open the door. Fink’s body lay on the floor with two bullet wounds in the chest and one in the arm, which was powder-marked.
No weapon was found on the premises, the cash register was untouched, and all fingerprints were Fink’s. If this was suicide, where was the weapon? If Fink had been shot from a distance through the transom, how account for the powder marks on his arm? After 82 years, the laundryman’s death has never been explained.
In 1925, small-time criminal Alves Reis convinced the British firm that printed Portuguese currency to make some for him, and he passed some 5 million phony escudos into the Portuguese economy. Because the unauthorized bills came from official presses, the government at first could detect nothing wrong, but finally it found some duplicate serial numbers in Reis’ accounts and the game was up.
Reis argued that he had cheated no one, but he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Lord Macmillan of Aberfeldy called the scheme “a crime for which, in the ingenuity and audacity of its conception, it would be difficult to find a parallel.”
And it raises an interesting legal question: If currency is produced by an official government printer, can it still be called counterfeit?
On June 30, 1999, sheriff’s officers discovered the body of 41-year-old Ricky McCormick in a field in St. Louis. In his pockets were the two hand-printed documents above. Both the FBI and the American Cryptogram Association have failed to decipher the notes, so they’ve issued an appeal for help from the public.
Investigators believe the notes were written up to three days before McCormick’s death; his family says he’d used such encrypted notes since he was a boy. “Breaking the code could reveal the victim’s whereabouts before his death and could lead to the solution of a homicide,” said Dan Olson, chief of the FBI’s Cryptanalysis and Racketeering Records Unit. “Not every cipher we get arrives at our door under those circumstances.”
This is not an April Fools’ joke — the FBI’s appeal, including larger versions of the images, is here.
In 2007 Irish police noticed an alarming trend: They had written more than 50 tickets to one driver, a Prawo Jazdy. In traffic stops he had offered Polish credentials with varying addresses, and the repeated citations had failed to improve his driving.
In June they realized their mistake: Prawo Jazdy is Polish for “driver’s license.”
See Nothing Doing.
Unidentified court transcript quoted by Rodney R. Jones in Disorderly Conduct: Verbatim Excerpts From Actual Cases, 1987:
Counsel: Could you briefly describe the type of construction equipment used in your business?
Witness: Four tractors.
Counsel: What kind of tractors are they?
Counsel: Did you say “four”?
Witness: Ford. Ford. Like the Ford. It is a Ford tractor.
Counsel: You didn’t say “four,” you just said “Ford”?
Witness: Yes, Ford. That is what you asked me, what kind of tractors.
Counsel: Are there four Ford tractors? Is that what it is?
Witness: No, no. You asked me what kind of a tractor it was and I said Ford tractors.
Counsel: How many tractors are there?
On the evening of Jan. 19, 1931, the Liverpool Chess Club took a telephone message for one of its members. The caller, an R.M. Qualtrough, said he wanted William Wallace to visit him the following evening at 25 Menlove Gardens East to discuss insurance.
Wallace arrived 25 minutes later and took the message. The following evening he made his way into Liverpool by tram, only to discover that no such address existed. He made inquiries with a local policeman and a newsagent, then returned home and found that his wife had been beaten to death in their sitting room.
Had Wallace manufactured an alibi and then killed her himself? The telephone call had been placed from a box only 400 yards from Wallace’s house, but the message taker was certain the caller had not been Wallace. The crime scene was quite bloody, but no traces of blood were found on Wallace’s suit. A milk delivery boy insisted he had spoken to Julia Wallace only minutes before her husband would have had to leave to catch the tram.
Wallace was found guilty and sentenced to death, but an appeals court quashed the verdict on the grounds that it was unsupported by evidence. Wallace went free and died in Wirral in 1933. The crime remains unsolved.
If Wallace killed his wife, how did he manage it? If he didn’t … who did?
n. the act of tasting before another
On June 21, 1931, a brace of partridges was ordered from a poulterer at Aldershot, Hampshire, for delivery to the nearby bungalow of Lt. Hubert Chevis. A cook stored them in an open meat safe outside the building, then roasted them and served them to Chevis and his wife.
Chevis took one mouthful and said, “It tastes horrible!” His wife touched it with her tongue and pronounced it “fusty.” Both were taken ill within minutes, and Chevis died of strychnine poisoning early the following morning.
On the day of Chevis’ funeral, and before any story had appeared in the press, his father received a telegram that read “HOORAY. HOORAY. HOORAY.” The form had been signed with the name Hartigan and the address of a Dublin hotel, but no one by that name was found there.
When the Daily Sketch published a photograph of this telegram on Aug. 1, the editor received a postcard:
Why do you publish the picture of the Hooray telegram.
And Chevis’ father received a further postcard on Aug. 4:
It is a mystery they will never solve. Hooray.
He was right. Someone had found an opportunity to poison the birds between their arrival in a locked van and their being served, but Chevis had no known enemies and no one recognized the name Hartigan. The case has never been solved.
On Dec. 28, 1885, London grocer Edwin Bartlett was discovered dead in his bed. In his stomach was a fatal quantity of chloroform, but, strangely, his throat and larynx showed no signs of the burning that liquid chloroform should have caused.
Bartlett’s wife, Adelaide, was having an open romance with George Dyson, a local minister. It transpired that she had induced him to buy chloroform at local pharmacies in quantities too small to provoke suspicion, ostensibly to help treat Edwin, who was undergoing painful dental surgeries.
At trial, Adelaide’s defense was simply that she had no way to get the chloroform into Edwin’s stomach without passing it down his throat. The jury let her go.
“Now that Mrs. Bartlett has been acquitted,” remarked pathologist Sir James Paget afterward, “she should tell us, in the interests of science, how she did it.” Adelaide made no response. The puzzle of Edwin’s death has never been solved.
On July 12, 1942, someone shot Max Geller, the owner of Harlem’s Green Parrot Restaurant. The restaurant was locally famous for its namesake parrot, who had a useful vocabulary and could greet regular patrons by name.
No customer could identify the killer, and the agitated bird would cry only “Robber! Robber!” As the investigation foundered, someone suggested that perhaps it was saying “Robert! Robert!”
On the list of Geller’s regular customers detectives found a Robert Butler, a cab driver who had disappeared after the shooting. They traced him to the Bethlehem Steel plant in Baltimore, and he confessed: He’d shot Geller in a drunken rage for refusing to serve him. He was convicted in February 1944 and sentenced to 15 years.
He said, “I never did like that bird.”
The Ghent altarpiece is 20-panel allegorical polyptych by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, a masterpiece of 15th-century art.
In April 1934, a thief stole the lower left panel and demanded a ransom of 1 million Belgian francs.
Seven months later, Flemish broker Arsène Goedertier collapsed after a speech at a political rally. He managed to say that he knew where the stolen panel was hidden, but he died before he could communicate the secret.
In Goedertier’s home police found abundant evidence that he had sent the ransom note, but there was no sign of the missing panel, only a record that it was “in a place where neither I nor anyone else can recover it without drawing attention.”
It remains missing to this day.
On June 3, 1872, retired Navy captain George Colvocoresses bought a ticket for the boat from Bridgeport, Conn., to New York, where he had an appointment the next day with an insurance agent. He put a leather valise in his stateroom and dined in the restaurant, where he was observed to keep a small morocco traveling bag in his lap. At 10:30 a local druggist sold him some writing paper and envelopes and indicated the best route back to the boat. Just as the boat was putting off, a pistol shot was heard, and a policeman found Colvocoresses dying in the street.
His clothing was unbuttoned, and his shirt was on fire at the point where the bullet had entered, about 6 inches below the left breast. His possessions were near him except for the traveling bag, which was later found on a Naugatuck wharf, cut open with a dull knife. Diagonally across the street from the body was a large old-fashioned horse pistol. On the following day, percussion caps, a bullet, and a powder horn were found about 60 feet from where the body had been discovered.
Was this murder or suicide? Colvocoresses had recently increased the insurance on his life to $198,500, and it was claimed that the pistol’s hammer fitted an indentation in his bag. But a physician testified that it would be impossible for a man to shoot himself and then throw the pistol across the street, and the captain was healthy, on good terms with his family, and had adequate means.
After a long fight the insurance companies agreed to pay 50 cents on the dollar. That’s all we know.
Jones had been greatly depressed; he declared himself a murderer, and would not be comforted. Suddenly he asked me a question. ‘Are not the parents the cause of the birth of their children?’ said he. ‘I suppose so,’ said I. ‘Are not all men mortal?’ ‘That also may be admitted.’ ‘Then are not the parents the cause of the death of their children, since they know that they are mortal? And am I not a murderer?’ I was, I own, puzzled. At last I thought of something soothing. I pointed out to Jones that to cause the death of another was not necessarily murder. It might be manslaughter or justifiable homicide. ‘Of which of these then am I guilty?’ he queried. I could not say because I had never seen the Jones family, but I hear Jones has become a great bore in the asylum by his unceasing appeals to every one to tell him whether he has committed murder, manslaughter, or justifiable homicide!
– F.C.S. Schiller, quoted in Ralph L. Woods, How to Torture Your Mind, 1969
In 1902, 42-year-old Norwegian emigrant Belle Gunness bought an Indiana farm with $8,500 in insurance money she’d received when her husband and two children died. A second husband died after only nine months, and over the next six years a succession of prosperous suitors visited her farm and failed to return.
When the brother of one of these men grew suspicious, the farmhouse suddenly burned to the ground in April 1908. Firemen discovered the remains of four people stacked in the cellar: Three were Gunness’ children, but the fourth — an adult woman — was unidentifiable because its head was missing.
Investigation began to turn up butchered corpses buried around the property. Under questioning, farmhand Ray Lamphere said that Gunness would lure her victims to the farmhouse, drug them, kill them with an ax, and bury them in the hog pen or around the grounds.
It’s estimated that Gunness killed more than 40 people, making her one of America’s most prolific serial killers of either sex. Curiously, her own fate is uncertain — officially she was declared dead, but neighbors insisted the headless remains could not have been hers. Lamphere claimed she had staged her own death and absconded with $100,000 in stolen money. He may be right — there’s not enough surviving DNA to decide for certain.
The concept of forgery seems to be peculiarly inapplicable to the performing arts. It would be quite nonsensical to say, for example, that the man who played the Bach suites for unaccompanied cello and whom at the time we took to be Pablo Casals was in fact a forger. Similarly, we should want to argue that the term forgery was misused if we should read in the newspaper that Margot Fonteyn’s performance in Swan Lake last night was a forgery because as a matter of fact it was not Margot Fonteyn who danced last night, but rather some unknown person whom everyone mistook for Margot Fonteyn. Again, it is difficult to see in what sense a performance of, say, Oedipus Rex or Hamlet could be termed a forgery.
– Alfred Lessing, “What Is Wrong With a Forgery?” in Alex Neill and Aaron Ridley, eds., Arguing About Art, 1995
In the little town of Villisca, Iowa, 35-year-old Joe Moore, his wife, his four children, and two visiting daughters of a neighbor went to bed on June 9, 1912.
The following morning, all eight were dead.
“The parties were all killed with an axe which was found in the house, the axe belonging to Mr. Moore,” reported Iowa attorney general Horace Havner. “The window shades were all drawn and the doors covered with clothing so that no light could get out from the house. The mirrors in the house were also all covered. Not one of the parties received any injury below the neck but the heads of the victims were all beaten to a pulp, the head of Mr. Moore being mangled worse than the rest, although they were all beaten beyond the possibility of recognition.”
Ten years of investigations, grand juries, trials, and arguments produced no convictions. The case remains unsolved.