A Chorus of Versus

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


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.


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.”

Podcast Episode 363: The Lambeth Poisoner


In 1891, a mysterious figure appeared on the streets of London, dispensing pills to poor young women who then died in agony. Suspicion came to center on a Scottish-Canadian doctor with a dark past in North America. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the career of the Lambeth Poisoner, whose victims remain uncounted.

We’ll also consider a Hungarian Jules Verne and puzzle over an ambiguous sentence.

See full show notes …

Payment in Kind


During a stickup, bank robbers order tellers to keep their hands up so they can’t defend themselves or the customers. In 1921 San Francisco inventor Harry McGrath offered this solution: The teller wears a loaded pistol under his arm, with a wire running down his coat sleeve to his palm. Now when his arms are raised he can still fire the gun.

The patent says nothing about aiming, but “in order to make the gun perfectly safe, a blank cartridge can be placed in the magazine to be fired first, followed by a ball cartridge.”

I don’t know whether McGrath himself was a bank teller. I hope not.

Blanche Monnier


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


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.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 338: A Point of Law


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.

See full show notes …

“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


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.

See full show notes …