Sweet Dreams

https://archive.org/details/sim_strand-magazine_july-december-1894_8/page/306/mode/2up?view=theater

In an 1894 feature on peculiar furniture, the Strand describes a “suffocating bedstead” used to dispatch unwitting inn guests in the days of coach travel:

Nothing whatever of a suspicious character revealed itself to the eye of the wayfarer, yet when the scoundrel who meditated crime had satisfied himself that the man slept, he would quickly lower an interior portion of the canopy of the bedstead, firmly imprisoning him in an air-tight cavity until suffocation ensued. Struggling and shouting would be useless under such circumstances, as the weight of the box would be tremendous.

This recalls Wilkie Collins’ 1852 story “A Terribly Strange Bed,” in which a visitor at a Paris gambling house realizes the canopy over his bed is moving:

It descended — the whole canopy, with the fringe round it, came down — down — close down; so close that there was not room now to squeeze my finger between the bed-top and the bed. I felt at the sides, and discovered that what had appeared to me from beneath to be the ordinary light canopy of a four-post bed was in reality a thick, broad mattress, the substance of which was concealed by the valance and its fringe. I looked up and saw the four posts rising hideously bare. In the middle of the bed-top was a huge wooden screw that had evidently worked it down through a hole in the ceiling, just as ordinary presses are worked down on the substance selected for compression.

In his preface to the collection in which that story appears, Collins claims that it’s “entirely of my own imagining, constructing, and writing” but credits painter W.S. Herrick for “the curious and interesting facts” on which it’s based. The Strand article, published 40 years later, doesn’t mention Collins, but perhaps the idea had entered English folklore by that point. Or maybe it’s true!

Paperwork

Doubtless time travel will raise a host of legal difficulties, e.g., should a time traveler who punches his younger self (or vice versa) be charged with assault? Should the time traveler who murders someone and then flees into the past for sanctuary be tried in the past for his crime committed in the future? If he marries in the past can he be tried for bigamy even though his other wife will not be born for almost 5000 years? Etc., etc. I leave such questions for lawyers and writers of ethics textbooks to solve.

— Larry Dwyer, “Time Travel and Some Alleged Logical Asymmetries Between Past and Future,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 8:1 (March 1978), 15-38

Not Guilty

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fairy_King_and_Queen_1910.jpg

The Swedish courts took up a perplexing case in 1656: Småland maid Karin Svensdotter claimed to have had a sexual relationship with the King of the Fairies. She said she’d met a beautiful man in golden clothes who called himself Älvakungen and courted her with gifts. She’d borne him seven children, which he’d taken away to the land of the fairies. She said she’d given birth during recurring fits, from which she was known to suffer, and her employer testified that he’d heard her searching for her children in the forest.

In the 17th century the church acknowledged the existence of mythical creatures, and consorting with nature spirits such as Älvakungen would have constituted bestiality, for which a human might face a death sentence. After some consideration, though, it was determined that Svensdotter had been driven mad by Satan’s magic. The congregation was ordered to pray for her, relatives gave her a silver cross, and Älvakungen never troubled her again.

Private Collection

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Woman-Ochre.jpg

In November 1985, a couple walked into an art museum in Tucson, Arizona. While the woman chatted with a security guard, the man disappeared briefly upstairs, and then the pair departed. Then the guard discovered that Willem de Kooning’s painting Woman-Ochre was missing — it had been cut out of its canvas.

More than 30 years later, in 2017, retired New York speech pathologist Rita Alter passed away in the little town of Cliff, N.M., five years after her husband, Jerry, a former schoolteacher. In their bedroom was the missing de Kooning, in a position that was visible only when the door was closed. The painting appeared to have been reframed only once in the 31 years it had been missing, suggesting that it had had only one owner in that time.

Had the Alters stolen the painting? They were admirers of de Kooning and had been in Tucson the day before the theft. But such a crime seems vastly out of character for the retiring couple. “[They wouldn’t] risk something as wild and crazy as grand larceny — risk the possibility of winding up in prison, for God’s sake — they wouldn’t do that,” Rita’s sister told the New York Times.

Had the pair then bought the painting from a third party? That seems impossible too — it was worth an estimated $160 million. Perhaps the painting’s authenticity had been forgotten by the time of the transaction, so that both buyer and seller thought it was a copy? How could that have come about?

Jerry Alter once published a story in which a woman and her granddaughter steal an emerald from a museum and keep it on private display, “where two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see.” Is that a coincidence? A veiled admission?

We may never know. The FBI’s case remains open.

(Thanks, Daniel.)

Enterprise

Entries in a notebook carried by 37-year-old Iowa burglar Michael Sutton, arrested in the 1950s:

Clothes express and accentuate a person’s personality and station in life. Wear good clothes in order to be inconspicuous. Live in best hotels, so I won’t be noticed going and coming at odd hours.

Always carry the daily paper when on the prowl early in the evening — or a magazine. It looks like a person coming home from the office. Better still, carry a briefcase.

It takes an amazing amount of cunning to master crime.

Use bulb in toilet bowl to hide diamonds in — or cash.

Check to see if a town has an opera house or concerts on certain nights of the week. That’s where rich people congregate. Watch newspapers for names of people attending these.

Rich people live on No. 10 Hill in Baltimore, Maryland.

Bartenders, cabbies, fences, and women are stools. Frequent high class places where cheap stools and detectives can’t go.

Patience excels science.

Believe just the opposite of what people say — especially men — and you will be right ninety percent of the time.

Two guns in shoulder holsters and one 25 or 32 caliber automatic strapped to leg.

Leave phoney overcoat button at scene.

Use sneeze powder to foil capture. Sold in novelty stores. Called Cachoo — $1.00 per bottle.

Iowa Falls Museum. Solid gold armor. Also $5,000 gun collection, some with silencers. Go up through floor or down through roof.

The F.L. Doheny home has solid gold bath fixtures.

Dogs love the smell and taste of cinnamon.

Try to find out wealthy people’s birthdays. Chances are they have birthday parties downstairs. Then ransack second-floor rooms.

Buy diamonds with cash from Cartier’s when I want to sell a hot one. Show the receipt that it was purchased. Make sure it is same size and cut and purity.

On the day a criminal decides he is smarter than the police, he moves that much closer to the moment of his capture. Don’t belong to the egocentric class of criminals. Thieves who are so egotistical as to think that they can’t be caught are the ones who get caught.

I don’t have to prove my innocence. The police must prove my guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“I wonder a good deal about whether I’m crazy or not,” he told journalist St. Clair McElway. “They tell me they’ve got me taped as a constitutional psychopath, whatever the hell that is.”

(From Dennis Potter and Kevin B. Kinnee, Preliminary Criminal Investigations, 2015.)

Sea Rules

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:General_History_of_the_Pyrates_-_Captain_Bartholomew_Roberts_with_two_Ships.jpg

Articles observed by the crew of Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts (1682-1722):

  1. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.
  2. Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because, (over and above their proper share) they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their punishment.
  3. No person to game at cards or dice for money.
  4. The lights and candles to be put out at eight o’clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck.
  5. To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service.
  6. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.
  7. To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.
  8. No striking one another on board, but every man’s quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol.
  9. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared £1,000. If in order to do this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have 800 dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately.
  10. The captain and quartermaster to receive two shares of a prize: the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers one and a quarter.
  11. The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.

That’s from Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates (1724), via naval historian David Cordingly’s Under the Black Flag (1995). In the early years of the 18th century, Cordingly writes, a pirate captain “had absolute power in battle and when ‘fighting, chasing, or being chased,’ but in all other matters he was governed by the majority wishes of the crew.”

Open and Shut

Jami Johnson lost her wallet on December 11, 2007, when she left it on the counter at the Zip Trip convenience store in Clarkston, Washington. A surveillance video showed a man pick it up and walk out of the store with it.

The man, Michael Millhouse, was arrested two days later and charged with theft. How did police catch him so quickly? The Lewiston Tribune had published a frame from the surveillance video on its front page, directly below a four-column photo of Millhouse decorating a local window for the holidays. He was identified by name and was even wearing the same clothing as in the surveillance photo.

Clarkston Police Chief Joel Hastings said, “Initially, Millhouse denied taking the wallet and then said that he had taken the wallet, and thought it was his wife’s wallet. Later he said that he intended turning the wallet in to the police but had forgot about it.”

Police found the wallet at Millhouse’s business, Millhouse Signs of Lewiston, and returned it to Johnson. “This is the most unusual of any one I know of, to have both pictures on the front page at the same time and in the same location,” Hastings said. “I’ve never experienced that anywhere.”

A Chorus of Versus

https://www.flickr.com/photos/hip1/5382357985
Image: Flickr

In 1943, Texas panhandle farmer Ray L. Batman converted his farm into a family partnership by transferring some assets to his teenage son, Gerald. But it turned out that the son had no actual desire to become his father’s partner, and in fact Ray had taken the measures against the advice of his accountant, apparently in order to reduce his income tax liability. The IRS deemed the partnership illegitimate and assessed Ray and his wife a fine of $10,000 each.

This meant that, when the family sued the head of the IRS, the case was recorded as Batman v. Commissioner.

John G. Browning collected some further odd case titles for the Texas Bar Journal in 2011:

Schmuck v. United States
United States v. Dolt
Klump v. Duffus
Plough v. Fields
Silver v. Gold
Brain v. Mann
Juicy Whip v. Orange Bang
United States v. Estate of Grace
State of Indiana v. Virtue
Death v. Graves
Easter Seals Society for Crippled Children v. Playboy Enterprises
Julius Goldman’s Egg City v. United States
United States v. Bad Marriage
United States v. Vampire Nation

“And let’s just say that some plaintiffs have identity issues, as demonstrated by I Am the Beast Six Six Six of the Lord of Hosts in Edmond Frank MacGillivray Jr. Now. I Am the Beast Six Six Six of the Lord of Hosts IEFMJN. I Am the Beast Six Six Six of the Lord of Hosts. I Am the Beast Six Six Six of the Lord of Hosts OTLOHIEFMJN. I Am the Beast SSSOTLOHIEFMJN. I Am the Beast Six Six Six. Beast Six Six Six Lord v. Michigan State Police, et al., File No. 5:89:92, 1990 U.S. Dist. Lexis 8792 (W.D. Mich. July 12, 1990). I hear his friends just call him ‘Six.'”

An Overlooked Death

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Henryk_Siwiak.jpg

Late one night in 2001, Polish immigrant Henryk Siwiak set out to find a Pathmark supermarket in Brooklyn in order to start a new job. Around 11:40 p.m., residents in the area heard an argument followed by gunshots. Siwiak was found dead face down in Decatur Street, shot in the lung. A trail of blood showed that he had staggered there from Albany Avenue seeking help.

Unfortunately, this happened on September 11, the day of the terrorist attacks. Siwiak spoke poor English and was wearing camouflage clothing, which may have led his assailant to think he was associated with the attacks. In any case, with the city in chaos, police could not attend as closely to the case as they otherwise would have, and that day’s news coverage was devoted to the attacks, which may have prevented residents with potentially useful information from coming forward.

The case remains unsolved. “I’m afraid this is forever,” Henryk’s widow Ewa told the New York Times in 2011. Because the terror victims were not included in the city’s crime statistics, Siwiak’s death is the only homicide recorded in New York City on that day.

Noted

In a Midlands pub in October 1888, a Londoner named Alfred Blanchard told the landlord that he was the Whitechapel murderer. He repeated the statement to several people and was taken to the Duke Street police station, where he quickly recanted his confession. He had been in the pub for nine hours and drunk about five and a half pints of beer. From the Birmingham Press Gazette:

About half-past twelve o’clock he asked witness what kind of detectives they had in Birmingham. Witness told him he believed them to be very clever men. Prisoner said that it would be a funny thing if the Whitechapel murderer were to give himself up in Birmingham. Witness acquiesced, and prisoner continued, ‘I am the Whitechapel murderer.’ Turning round to an elderly gentleman sitting in the bar, prisoner said, ‘Look here, old gentleman; perhaps you would not think there was a murderer in the house.’ ‘I don’t know about that,’ replied the customer; ‘you might not look unlike one.’ Prisoner said, ‘I am one, then.’ Later on the old gentleman asked prisoner had he got the knife with him, and he answered that he had left a long knife behind him. Someone asked prisoner how he did the murders without making the victims scream. He explained that this was done ‘simply by placing the thumb and finger on the windpipe and cutting the throat with the right hand.’ He said he had ‘done six of them in London.’ He was sober when he made this statement. Turning round to witness prisoner said, ‘You are a fool if you don’t get the thousand pounds reward offered for me; you may as well have it as anyone else.’

He told the magistrate’s clerk that he had been drinking for two or three days before this and hoped that the press would be kind enough not to mention his case. He was dismissed with the admonition, “What a foolish man you have been.”