Auld Lang Syne

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Image: Wikipedia

The yacht club, which was directly across from the island, would always have a big New Year’s party. If the wind was blowing from that direction to the Rock, you could actually hear people laughing, you could hear music, you could hear girls laughing. You know, you could hear all the sounds coming from the free world, at the Rock. And New Year’s was always the night we heard it.

There was never a day you didn’t see what the hell you were losing, and what you were missing, you know. It was all there for you to see. There’s life. There’s everything I want in my life, and it’s there. It’s a mile or a mile and half away. And yet I can’t get to it.

— Jim Quillen, Alcatraz Inmate 586, in narration recorded for the self-guiding tour

Free Enterprise

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Image: Flickr

Until the 1990s it was arguably legal to purchase stolen goods in London’s Bermondsey Market without fear of prosecution.

The market operated under the ancient law of marché ouvert, or “open market,” a medieval legal concept that allowed for the open sale of stolen goods between the sunset and sunrise in designated markets in a city.

The idea was that if you were robbed and you didn’t check to see whether your stolen property was being sold in a local market, then you weren’t taking reasonable steps to recover it.

Surprisingly, Bermondsey Market operated under this law until 1995, when a stolen Joshua Reynolds painting was sold there for 100 pounds and the purchaser avoided prosecution for handling stolen goods by arguing that the sale was subject to these rules. The loophole has since been abolished.

(Thanks, Cathy.)

05/01/2019 UPDATE: A better explanation: It was never legal to sell or buy stolen goods knowingly. Ordinarily if a buyer is convicted of handling stolen goods then a court can order the goods returned to the original owner, and even without a criminal prosecution the owner can still seek recovery of their goods by appealing to a principle of the common law known as “nemo dat quod non habet” (“no one may give what he does not have”) — even if a buyer pays a fair price for goods she doesn’t know are stolen, she can’t obtain “good title,” ownership that defeats the claims of others, so the original owner can still recover the goods. “Market overt” is an exception to the nemo dat rule — until 1995, anything bought in good faith at a market overt in England became the legal property of the buyer, including title, even if it turned out to have been stolen — the original owner had no legal redress.

Market overt regulations were regarded as a valuable form of consumer protection when they were instantiated in the 12th century, but by the end of the 20th they had become known as the “thieves’ charter” for the dodgy sales they permitted. “It is a good thing it’s been stopped,” one Bermondsey trader told the Guardian in 1995. “People knew that market overt gave them a licence to bring stolen stock down here once a week.”

(Thanks, David.)

The Finger Pillory

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Here’s a forgotten punishment. In the 17th century, in return for a minor offense such as not attending to a sermon, a wrongdoer might be required to place his finger into an L-shaped hole over which a block was fastened to keep the knuckle bent. “[T]he finger was confined, and it will easily be seen that it could not be withdrawn until the pillory was opened,” writes William Andrews in Medieval Punishments (1898). “If the offender were held long in this posture, the punishment must have been extremely painful.”

In his 1686 history of Staffordshire, Robert Plot recalls a “finger-Stocks” “made for punishment of the disorders, that sometimes attend feasting at Christmas time.” Into this “the Lord of misrule, used formerly to put the fingers of all such persons as committed misdemeanors, or broke such rules, as by consent were agreed on for the time of keeping Christmas, among servants and others of promiscuous quality.”

A Cold Case

At 6 p.m. on Sept. 20, 1930, a 12-year-old Ramsgate girl was sent across the street to buy a blancmange powder from the neighborhood sweetshop. When the owner, 82-year-old Margery Wren, came to the door, the girl was shocked to see blood streaming down her face.

Wren was taken to the hospital, where she survived for five days. Her face bore eight wounds and bruises, the top of her head seven more. She said successively that she had fallen over the fire tongs, that a man had attacked her with the tongs, that he had a white bag, that it was another man with a red face, that it had been two men, and that it had been an accident. At one point she said she knew her attacker but that “I don’t wish him to suffer. He must bear his sins.” Just before she died she said, “He tried to borrow 10 pounds.”

Wren had been seen alive and well at 5:30. It seems likely that her attacker had locked the front door and escaped through the back. The case was never solved.

Podcast Episode 221: The Mystery Man of Essex County

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In 1882, a mysterious man using a false name married and murdered a well-to-do widow in Essex County, New York. While awaiting the gallows he composed poems, an autobiography, and six enigmatic cryptograms that have never been solved. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll examine the strange case of Henry Debosnys, whose true identity remains a mystery.

We’ll also consider children’s food choices and puzzle over a surprising footrace.

See full show notes …

The Ghost in the Garret

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When Los Angeles police were alerted to gunshots at the home of Fred Oesterreich on Aug. 22, 1922, they found the wealthy clothier dead in his bedroom and his wife locked in the closet. She told them that burglars had killed Fred when he’d resisted them. The story seemed plausible — Fred’s diamond watch was missing, and Dolly couldn’t have locked herself in the closet — but it seemed odd that Fred had been killed with a .25-caliber handgun, a relatively modest choice for an armed robber.

The story held up for nearly a year, but then detectives learned that Dolly had offered a diamond watch to the attorney settling her husband’s estate and had asked two other men to dispose of guns for her. She was jailed for murder, but detectives couldn’t prove that the rusted guns had been used in the crime, and still no one could explain how Dolly could have locked herself in the closet when the key was found in the hall. Eventually the charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

Seven years went by before her attorney finally revealed the bizarre truth. In 1913 Dolly had seduced Otto Sanhuber, a sewing-machine repairman who had worked in her husband’s factory. For nearly 10 years he’d lived in the Oesterreichs’ house as Dolly’s sex slave, hiding in the attic to evade Fred. On the night of the murder he’d heard the couple in a violent quarrel and emerged with two guns, astonishing Fred and, in a struggle, shooting him three times. He and Dolly had invented the tale of the burglary and he’d locked her in the closet. In jail she had begged the attorney to take food to a man in her attic. He’d thrown Otto out of the house but kept the secret because he and Dolly had become lovers themselves.

A jury found Otto guilty of manslaughter, but by that time the statute of limitations had passed. In a separate trial Dolly was charged with conspiracy but saved by a hung jury. She lived quietly thereafter until her death in 1961.

(Michael Parrish, For the People: Inside the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office 1850-2000, 2001.)

Podcast Episode 219: The Greenbrier Ghost

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In 1897, shortly after Zona Shue was found dead in her West Virginia home, her mother went to the county prosecutor with a bizarre story. She said that her daughter had been murdered — and that her ghost had revealed the killer’s identity. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Greenbrier Ghost, one of the strangest courtroom dramas of the 19th century.

We’ll also consider whether cats are controlling us and puzzle over a delightful oblivion.

See full show notes …

The Last Ditch

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A few months ago I read in The Guinness Book of Music Facts and Feats that Henry Bishop’s “Home! Sweet Home!” is the only song known to have been sung in a court of law — specifically, sung to a jury by a defense attorney. I had my doubts about this, but I’ve just gone scrounging around and lo it is true. From the New York Times, Sept. 28, 1935:

An attorney sang ‘Home, Sweet Home’ to a jury today in a vain attempt to save his client from prison. After listening to the rendition by John Brett, the lawyer, the jury convicted Lloyd Grable, Oklahoma city motor-car mechanic, of attempted bank robbery and specified life imprisonment.

The story is headlined “Lawyer Sings, Client Gets Life.” The defendant’s thoughts are not recorded.

Jack the Snipper

From the United Press, June 18, 1942:

Pascagoula, Miss. — (U.P.) — Everybody in town is just as mystified over the motive of the ‘phantom barber’ as they are about who he might try to clip next.

Without robbing or otherwise disturbing his victims, he breaks into homes at night and snips the hair of heavy sleepers. He has given haircuts to three persons in the past week and not one of them even woke up during the process.

Police chief A. W. Ezell said he didn’t have the slightest idea why a man would want to do such a thing, but because the complaints have been coming hard and heavy, his department has staked a $300 reward for information leading to his capture. He also gave pistol permits to six volunteer officers and ordered the regular police force to be on the alert.

Bloodhounds, given a man’s footprint to start on, have failed miserably. None of the victims could give a description since they slumbered on oblivious of the tonsorial attention they were getting.

Alone Together

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Introduced in the early 1800s, the “separate system” of prison architecture kept prisoners isolated from one another, to make them easier to control and to destroy the criminal subculture that could otherwise arise in dense populations. Prisoners were reduced to numbers, without names or histories, and the guards were forbidden to speak to them; in the exercise yard they tramped silently in rows, their faces hidden by brown cloth masks.

At London’s Pentonville prison this separation extended even to the chapel, where the assembled prisoners could see the chaplain but not each other. “Every man, as he enters, knows the precise row and seat that he has to occupy, and though some few pass in together at the same moment, these go to opposite quarters of the gallery,” observed journalist Henry Mayhew. “Each convict is able to get to his seat, and to close the partition-door of his stall after him, before the one following his steps has time to enter the same row.”

After the service, their exit was managed by a curious mechanical device that displayed each stall number in succession. “Thus the chapel is entirely emptied, not only with considerable rapidity, but without any disturbance or confusion.”

Pentonville was considered a model British prison of its time, and some 300 prisons worldwide were eventually built on the separate system. But an official report acknowledged that “for every sixty thousand persons imprisoned in Pentonville there were 220 cases of insanity, 210 cases of delusion, and forty suicides.”

(Henry Mayhew, The Criminal Prisons of London, 1862.)