Podcast Episode 221: The Mystery Man of Essex County

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Debosnys-Self-Portrait.png

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.

Intro:

In 1972 two Canadian scientists set out to figure the number of monsters in Loch Ness.

Winston Churchill’s country home must always maintain a marmalade cat named Jock.

Sources for our feature on Henry Debosnys:

Cheri L. Farnsworth, Adirondack Enigma, 2010.

Craig P. Bauer, Unsolved!, 2017.

George Levi Brown, Pleasant Valley: A History of Elizabethtown, Essex County, New York, 1905.

Caroline Halstead Barton Royce, Bessboro: A History of Westport, Essex Co., N.Y., 1902.

“Debosnys Ciphers,” The Cipher Foundation (accessed Oct. 7, 2018).

Craig P. Bauer, “When Killers Leave Ciphers,” history.com, Nov. 14, 2017.

Nick Pelling, “Henry Debosnys and the Cimbria … ?” Cipher Mysteries, Nov. 16, 2015.

Nick Pelling, “Thoughts on the Debosnys Ciphers …” Cipher Mysteries, Nov. 7, 2015.

Nick Pelling, “The Person Not on the S.S.Cimbria …” Cipher Mysteries, Nov. 17, 2015.

“Guilty of Wife Murder,” [Washington D.C.] National Republican, March 8, 1883.

“Hangman’s Day,” [Wilmington, Del.] Daily Republican, April 28, 1883.

“A Murderer’s Story,” Burlington [Vt.] Weekly Free Press, Nov. 24, 1882.

“A Wife’s Fearful Death,” New York Times, Aug. 6, 1882.

“A Remarkable Man Hanged,” New York Times, April 28, 1883.

The Troy Times of Nov. 23, 1882, had noted, “The prisoner spends his time writing verses, or what he thinks is poetry, and he has over a ream of foolscap paper closely written. Much of this doggerel is written in Latin, French, and an unknown cipher, which Debosnys says is used in Europe quite extensively.” These six cryptograms came to light in 1957 — none has been solved:

Listener mail:

August Skalweit, Die Deutsche Kriegsernährungswirtschaft, 1927.

Emma Beckett, “Food Fraud Affects Many Supermarket Staples, So How Do You Choose the Good Stuff?” ABC, Sept. 3, 2018.

Stephen Strauss, “Clara M. Davis and the Wisdom of Letting Children Choose Their Own Diets,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 175:10 (Nov. 7, 2006), 1199–1201.

Benjamin Scheindlin, “‘Take One More Bite for Me’: Clara Davis and the Feeding of Young Children,” Gastronomica 5:1 (Winter 2005), 65-69.

Clara M. Davis, “Results of the Self-Selection of Diets by Young Children,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 41:3 (September 1939), 257.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was inspired by an item on the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish. Here are two corroborating links (warning — these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at https://futilitycloset.libsyn.com/rss.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

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

https://books.google.com/books?id=TGAJAAAAQAAJ

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.)

Podcast Episode 207: The Bluebelle’s Last Voyage

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In 1961, Wisconsin optometrist Arthur Duperrault chartered a yacht to take his family on a sailing holiday in the Bahamas. After two days in the islands, the ship failed to return to the mainland, and the unfolding story of its final voyage made headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll recount the fate of the Bluebelle and its seven passengers and crew.

We’ll also sympathize with some digital misfits and puzzle over some incendiary cigarettes.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 201: The Gardner Heist

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In 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen walked into Boston’s Gardner museum and walked out with 13 artworks worth half a billion dollars. After 28 years the lost masterpieces have never been recovered. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the largest art theft in history and the ongoing search for its solution.

We’ll also discover the benefits of mustard gas and puzzle over a surprisingly effective fighter pilot.

See full show notes …

Prepared

https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/topten/topten-history/hires_images/FBI-236-JamesRobertRingrose.jpg/view

Verbatim from the FBI’s “most wanted” website:

Former Ten Most Wanted Fugitive #236: On March 29, 1967, [James Robert] Ringrose was apprehended in Osaka, Japan, by Japanese police while attempting to pass bad checks. He was arrested in Hawaii after his return to the United States from Japan. He told the FBI agents he had been saving an item for several years and now he needed it. He then presented them with the Monopoly game card, ‘Get out of jail free.’

I’m pretty sure they’d have to honor this, wouldn’t they? It’s in the rules.

Podcast Episode 198: The Man Who Wouldn’t Die

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In 1932 a quartet of Bronx gangsters set out to murder a friend of theirs in order to collect his life insurance. But Michael Malloy proved to be almost comically difficult to kill. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review what one observer called “the most clumsily executed insurance scam in New York City history.”

We’ll also burrow into hoarding and puzzle over the value of silence.

See full show notes …