Blanche Monnier

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In May 1901, the attorney general of Paris received an anonymous letter. It read, “I have the honor to inform you of an exceptionally serious occurrence. I speak of a spinster who is locked up in Madame Monnier’s house, half-starved and living on a putrid litter for the past twenty-five years — in a word, in her own filth.”

When police investigated, they found in Monnier’s attic a 52-year-old woman who weighed barely 25 kilograms. One policeman described the scene: “The unfortunate woman was lying completely naked on a rotten straw mattress. All around her was formed a sort of crust made from excrement, fragments of meat, vegetables, fish, and rotten bread. … We also saw oyster shells, and bugs running across Mademoiselle Monnier’s bed. The air was so unbreathable, the odor given off by the room was so rank, that it was impossible for us to stay any longer to proceed with our investigation.”

In 1874, when Blanche was 25, her mother Louise had locked her away to prevent her marrying a “penniless lawyer,” and for 25 years she and Blanche’s brother had pretended that she had disappeared. Louise was arrested but died shortly afterward; the brother was convicted but acquitted on appeal. Blanche was admitted to a psychiatric hospital but died in 1913. The identity of the letter writer who revealed all this was never discovered.

Podcast Episode 339: The Baron of Arizona

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In 1883, Missouri real estate broker James Reavis announced that he held title to a huge tract of land in the Arizona Territory. If certified, the claim would threaten the livelihoods of thousands of residents. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Baron of Arizona, one of the most audacious frauds in American history.

We’ll also scrutinize British statues and puzzle over some curious floor numbers.

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Podcast Episode 338: A Point of Law

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One dark night in 1804, a London excise officer mistook a bricklayer for a ghost and shot him. This raised a difficult question: Was he guilty of murder? In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll consider the case of the Hammersmith ghost, which has been called “one of the greatest curiosities in English criminal law.”

We’ll also worry about British spiders and puzzle over some duplicative dog names.

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“Half-Hanged Smith”

John Smith escaped execution three times. Convicted of housebreaking in 1705, he was hanged at the Tyburn gallows for a quarter of an hour before the people called for a reprieve and he was cut down.

When he had perfectly recovered his senses he was asked what were his feelings at the time of execution; to which he repeatedly replied, in substance, as follows. When he was turned off, he for some time was sensible of very great pain, occasioned by the weight of his body, and felt his spirits in a strange commotion, violently pressing upwards. That having forced their way to his head, he as it were saw a great blaze, or glaring light, which seemed to go out at his eyes with a flash, and then he lost all sense of pain. That after he was cut down, and began to come to himself, the blood and spirits, forcing themselves into their former channels, put him, by a sort of pricking or shooting, to such intolerable pain that he could have wished those hanged who had cut him down.

He returned to housebreaking on his release in 1706, but his strange luck continued: On his second indictment some difficulties in the case induced a panel of judges to set him free, and on his third the prosecutor died before the day of the trial.

The streak ended in 1727, when he was convicted of stealing a padlock and sentenced to transportation. He pleaded for corporal punishment instead but was sent to Virginia that July.

Podcast Episode 314: The Taliesin Murders

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By 1914 Frank Lloyd Wright had become one of America’s most influential architects. But that August a violent tragedy unfolded at his Midwestern residence and studio. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the shocking attack of Julian Carlton, which has been called “the most horrific single act of mass murder in Wisconsin history.”

We’ll also admire some helpful dogs and puzzle over some freezing heat.

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Podcast Episode 309: The ‘Grain of Salt’ Episode

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Sometimes in our research we come across stories that are regarded as true but that we can’t fully verify. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll share two such stories from the 1920s, about a pair of New York fruit dealers and a mythologized bank robber, and discuss the strength of the evidence behind them.

We’ll also salute a retiring cat and puzzle over a heartless spouse.

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Intentions

In 1983 Paul Desmond Taafe imported certain packages into England. He thought they contained currency, which he erroneously believed was illegal to import. The packages actually contained cannabis, which was illegal to import. Was he “knowingly concerned in [the] fraudulent evasion” of any prohibition on importing goods?

He was convicted but appealed. “If we describe his action in terms of his own beliefs (about the facts and about the law), it obviously constituted an attempt to commit (indeed, it constituted the actual commission of) that crime,” writes R.A. Duff in Criminal Attempts. But Taafe wasn’t “knowingly concerned” in evading the ban on cannabis — he didn’t know he was importing cannabis. And however guilty he may have felt for smuggling currency, that wasn’t a crime.

He was acquitted.

(Taaffe [1983] 1 WLR 627 (CA); [1984] 1 AC 539 (HL).)

Podcast Episode 307: The Cyprus Mutiny

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1829 a group of convicts commandeered a brig in Tasmania and set off across the Pacific, hoping to elude their pursuers and win their freedom. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the mutineers of the Cyprus and a striking new perspective on their adventure.

We’ll also consider a Flemish dog and puzzle over a multiplied Oscar.

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Podcast Episode 302: The Galápagos Affair

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Image: Smithsonian Institution Archives

In 1929 a German couple fled civilization to live on an uninhabited island in the Eastern Pacific. But other settlers soon followed, leading to strife, suspicion, and possibly murder. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Galápagos affair, a bizarre mystery that remains unsolved.

We’ll also meet another deadly doctor and puzzle over a posthumous marriage.

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Podcast Episode 298: The Theft of the Mona Lisa

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In 1911, the Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre. After an extensive investigation it made a surprising reappearance that inspired headlines around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the painting’s abduction, which has been called the greatest art theft of the 20th century.

We’ll also shake Seattle and puzzle over a fortunate lack of work.

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