Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Smallest Of All Persons Mentioned In The Records Of Littleness by Gaby Wood

This brief little book with the very long title tells the story of the brief and very tragic life of Caroline Crachami, the famous “Sicilian Fairy,” a dainty dwarf only one foot ten and a half inches tall who died in 1824 while being exhibited in London.

Her life began in Palermo, she was born the day after the Battle of Waterloo. A rather unlikely story claimed that Caroline’s diminutive size was the result of the then commonly held belief in “maternal impressions” which meant that any fright or horrific sight experienced by an expectant woman could result in a deformity to her child. In Caroline’s case it was said an escaped monkey had crawled between her mother’s legs as she lay sleeping and when Mrs. Crachami reached down in her sleep to scratch her private parts the monkey bit her. Her child was born shortly after weighing only a pound. The Crachamis later emigrated to Ireland where Caroline’s father found work as a musician at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. But dainty Caroline proved sickly. A Dr. Gilligan diagnosed consumption and persuaded her parents to allow him to take their daughter to London, the climate there would be better for her, he explained, and, in the interests of science, he convinced the concerned parents to allow him to briefly exhibit their remarkable offspring.

If the Crachamis equated brevity with ease, they were sadly mistaken. Caroline’s time as one of the most popular human oddities being exhibited in London was brief only because exhaustion combined with tuberculosis soon sapped her life away. While on display in Mayfair she sometimes received as many as 200 visitors a day who, for the cost of an extra shilling, were allowed to handle this living doll. She was even taken to Carlton House for an audience with King George IV. After an exhausting day on display Caroline expired, supposedly at the age of nine, though modern science estimates her age was more likely closer to three.

Dr. Gilligan sold her body to the Royal College of Surgeons and the devastated Mr. Crachami, who had read about his daughter’s death in a newspaper, arrived just in time to walk in as she was being dissected. Today her skeleton, like an ivory bead and filigree sculpture, is displayed in the Hunterian Museum alongside the seven foot ten inch skeleton of “The Irish Giant” Charles Byrne, along with a glass case containing wax casts of her three inch foot, her arm, and her death mask, as well as a pair of her beribboned ballet slippers, a thimble, silk sock, and ruby ring. 

 This slim volume presents the meager facts that are known about the life of Caroline Crachami and makes intriguing reading.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Man Who Killed Houdini An Investigation by Don Bell

On October 22, 1926 J. Gordon Whitehead, a thirty-one-year-old McGill University student from Montreal, Canada visited magician and escape artist Harry Houdini in his dressing room at the Princess Theatre and punched him repeatedly in the stomach to test his oft-repeated boast that he could withstand any blow to the abdomen by tensing his muscles. Houdini was caught off guard, before he had a chance to steel himself, some reports say he was lying on a sofa perusing his mail at the time the onslaught of blows began, doing irreparable damage. Nine days later on Halloween the magic died. At age fifty-two the great Houdini was dead of a ruptured appendix and peritonitis. In those days before antibiotics, there was nothing medical science could do to save him.

J. Gordon Whitehead appeared to fall off the face of the earth after the incident and in 1982 journalist Don Bell became intrigued by the man who, whether intentionally or unwittingly, innocently or maliciously, caused the death of the world’s most famous magician. At the time of his death Houdini was on the hit list of many mediums who resented his exposes of their fraudulent activities; the entire third act of his show was devoted to exposing the tricks that went on in darkened seance rooms, and many mediums swore vengeance and prophesied doom would befall Houdini very soon. Mr. Bell wondered if this was in any way related to Houdini’s death—Was J. Gordon Whitehead a believer striking a blow for spiritualism?

Mr. Bell spent twenty years searching for the truth, tracking down surviving eyewitnesses or the descendants of those already departed, elusive documents, and even the only known surviving photograph of J. Gordon Whitehead. Sadly he died in 2003 and did not live to see his book published. The Man Who Killed Houdini is a fascinating real-life detective story that delves into the mind of a disturbed and possibly tormented personality, it’s a must for any Houdini fan and will, I think, also appeal to anyone interested in fully exploring one of the little incidents in history that has often been glossed over in just a paragraph or two in past accounts where the fact that Houdini died overshadowed the circumstances of exactly how and why.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Clueless In New England The Unsolved Disappearances of Paula Welden, Connie Smith and Katherine Hull by Michael G. Dooling

At last, a book about one of the mysterious disappearances that has captivated me most of all—Paula Welden, a pretty sophomore at Vermont’s Bennington College who vanished without a trace in December 1946. With an idea in mind about hiking the Long Trail, after working her shift in the dining hall, Paula put on her red parka, blue jeans, and tennis shoes, and set out, alternately walking and hitchhiking. She never came back. Though featured in numerous collections of unsolved mysteries and articles about missing persons, and that area in Vermont that has been eerily dubbed “The Bennington Triangle” because of the numerous disappearances that have occurred there over the years, all of which are rationally chronicled in this book, with an eye towards truth not New Age mysticism or spinning a good campfire yarn, this is the first time the case has been treated to a full, book-length analysis and viewed through modern eyes and the lenses of forensic, psychological, and geological knowledge about serial killers and their behavior patterns.

As well as the Paula Welden case, Mr. Dooling also examines the 1952 disappearance of Connie Smith (Constance Christine Smith) is also examined. So tall for her age that she might have been mistaken for older, the ten-year-old left her Connecticut summer camp after a brawl with another girl, dismissed as “horseplay” resulted in broken glasses and a bloody nose for Connie. She was last seen hitchhiking, witnesses later came forward to report that she had stopped to ask them for directions to town, but somewhere along the way she vanished.

The last case, although chronologically the first, as it occurred in 1936, tells the story of Katherine Hull, a pretty blonde stenographer who vanished while visiting her grandmother in Lebanon Valley, along the New York/Massachusetts border. Katherine went for a walk and vanished. She may have been hitchhiking or someone stopped to offer her a ride, as some witnesses report seeing a woman matching her description get into a car. Her family liked to believe the religious young woman had run away to join a convent, at least that way she would still be alive. Unlike Paula Welden and Connie Smith, Katherine’s remains were later found, seven years later a hunter happened upon her skeleton. Because of their condition, cause of death could not be determined, and what was left of Katherine Hull was cremated. At that time, authorities assumed she had died of exposure.

The author fully explores the theory that a serial killer was at large, preying on vulnerable young women hitchhiking along the New York border and hiding their remains in the woods. Whether these three women who vanished were truly murder victims or not, Mr. Dooling delivers a meticulously detailed account of their disappearances, the details culled from police files, newspapers, and interviews, and ponders whether if they happened today if they would have remained unsolved. Even if I didn’t stay up all night anyway, this book would have kept me awake.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Salvation On Sand Mountain Snake Handling and Redemption In Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington

This was a fascinating book to read. I have always been amazed and intrigued by those who take their faith, and their lives, into their own hands by handling deadly, poisonous serpents, trusting in God and their faith in Him to protect them. I also happen to like snakes as long as they are on tv, behind glass, or safely confined to the pages of books. My parents, who had me late in life, grew up in rural Georgia in the 1930s and 1940s and, in my father’s case at least, believed in this sort of thing; in his youth he attended a church where members would prove their faith by putting their hands on a red-hot iron pot-bellied stove without suffering burns and faith healers performed miracles at tent revivals. To this day he refuses to believe that any trickery might have been involved, whereas I, skeptic that I am with my interest in the paranormal, psychology, history, and science, am more inclined to seriously entertain that suspicion; people have been faking miracles and relics since religion began. So, for me, this was a very interesting book.

In 1992 the author of this book, Dennis Covington, went to Alabama to cover the trial of the Reverend Glen Summerford who was accused of attempting to murder his wife, Darlene, with the rattlesnakes they used in their worship services. Covington decided to attend an evening service at The Church of Jesus With Signs Following, a converted gas station/general store with a steeple on top, where Reverend Summerford used to preach before he was arrested. The men in jeans and overalls and the women in ankle-length skirts with long hair and no makeup made him welcome and after the lively hillbilly music, the pulsing thrum of electric guitars and the jingle-jangle of tambourines, and the hymn singing they got down to business—speaking in tongues, drinking strychnine from mason jars, handling fire with their bare hands, and, the snakes—rattlesnakes and copperheads mostly, though cobras were also occasionally seen at services by those “fortunate” to acquire them.

One would think this was the end of the story, that after the trial ended, Dennis would go back to the city and write his story, but he found himself drawn to the snake handlers and, welcomed to their services and hailed as “Brother Dennis” he began regularly attending their churches, even traveling with them to various parts of Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, to attend meetings, and, caught up in the ecstasy, he would eventually, when the spirit moved him, dare to take up serpents.

Despite becoming intimately involved with his story, Mr. Covington manages to deliver a sane and straightforward account of the history of snake handling and the misadventures of those who practice it, the bites, fatalities, beliefs, bickering, and controversy. It is not a preachy book that the author, who has left snake handling behind, uses to try to convert disbelievers, merely an account of his own investigation and experiences. Whether you are seriously interested in bizarre religions and strange beliefs or just vaguely curious, I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Mad Madame Lalaurie New Orleans' Most Famous Murderess Revealed by Victoria Cosner Love and Lorelei Shannon

If you love historic ghost stories like I do, no doubt you have heard the tale of the infamous Madame Lalaurie. In 1834 when her opulent mansion located in New Orleans’ French Quarter caught fire unspeakable horrors were discovered in the attic. Firemen found naked slaves, starved and mutilated, some the victims of horrific medical experiments performed by Madame’s husband, a doctor interested in deformities, while, cool as a cucumber, Madame implored them to save her fine art and furniture and then fled in her coach to evade mob justice, supposedly living out the rest of her life exiled in Paris until she was killed by a wild boar in a hunting accident. For over 150 years the tale has endured with 1140 Rue Royal being pointed out as New Orleans’ most haunted house.

But is the story true? Incredibly, until now, there has been no in depth investigation of the truth behind this tale of terror. The authors offer us a concise, straightforward account of the few facts known about Madame Lalaurie’s genteel Creole upbringing, her life as a high society belle presiding over balls and parties at plantations and mansions, her three marriages, and the births of her children. It contains numerous quotations from various historical sources not readily available to the average reader, which some readers might find distracting and disruptive to the narrative whilst others will appreciate the air of authenticity it lends. The authors do a thorough, meticulous job of exploring every facet of the legend, from genealogy to hauntings and alleged paranormal activity at the house on Royal Street, they even include a chapter on depictions of Madame Lalaurie in popular culture and show how the legend grew and evolved with each telling.

This is one of those books I call “don’t shoot the messenger books” in which it is revealed that the scant facts don’t really support the oft-told sensational story once the embroidered layers are stripped away like a southern belle’s petticoats, but that is not the authors’ fault, they have done an admirable job of exposing the naked truth.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Smouldering Fires by Anya Seton

Set in the 1970s, this novel revolves around Amy Delatour, a nearly friendless high school misfit, the type of girl who doesn’t know how to make the most of her looks and wears the wrong clothes, glasses, and her pretty reddish-brown hair scraped back, up and out of the way in a granny knot. She is fascinated by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, particularly his poem “Evangeline” which harkens back to her own French Acadian heritage. She is also troubled by an unexplainable fear of fire and haunted by strange dreams. Her hardworking, pain-wracked widowed mother, Sarah, is brusque, critical, and resentful, and the only real affection in Amy’s life comes from her French-Canadian grandfather, “Grandpere” Pierre Delatour ,who has filled her receptive mind with tales of their ancestors' exile from Nova Scotia in 1755 and the horrors and cruelty they endured.

The new English teacher, Martin Stone, takes an interest in Amy when they discuss her independent study project—she wants to write a paper about the real Evangeline, whom she believes was her ancestor, Ange-Marie. Intrigued by the hidden depths and brightness Amy hides under her glasses, granny knot, unattractive clothes, and quiet demeanor, her reference to “dreaming true,” and her inexplicable phobia of fire, Mr. Stone, who has an interest in psychology and the paranormal, decides to try hypnosis to unlock Amy’s subconscious and uncover the root of her problems and the source of her fear. But when Amy begins to speak in the voice of Ange-Marie, her 18th century French Acadian ancestress, her desperate longing for her lost love Paul, and fire, Martin enlists the aid of his old girlfriend and college classmate, Claire Colbert, and the two attempt to unravel the mystery of Amy/Ange-Marie and discover if this is evidence of a deeply disturbed personality, a schizophrenic perhaps, or genuine proof of reincarnation, the echoes of a past life intruding upon the present.

This is the final book by one of my favorite authors so it saddens me to say that this is a lackluster finale to her writing career. I wonder if perhaps she was trying to recapture the glory of Green Darkness, one of my all-time favorite books which also deals with a case of reincarnation, though at much greater length and depth than in Smouldering Fires, which appears skimpy and rushed in comparison. In Green Darkness the modern-day characters’ Tudor England past life personalities and surroundings were fully developed so readers could become immersed in their lives and emotions, and the turmoil of the times they lived in, but that is definitely not the case with Ange-Marie and her beloved Paul, they are wispy, pallid dream figures in comparison. I do not know the details of Mrs. Seton’s life, perhaps she had grown disenchanted with writing by this point or there were other problems in her life during the writing of this book that kept her from rising to the challenge that every book is and giving it her best. Maybe she was tired and just wanted to be done with it? I only know that Smouldering Fires, much to my regret, in this readers’ opinion, does not smoulder at all, the fire has gone completely out.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Happy 4th Birthday Tabby!

Tabby will be four years old on September 17th, but we're celebrating a few days early.

The tiger stripe cake:

Modeling her new dress.

Naptime! She's all tired out from eating cake and watching her two favorite movies--Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Wizard of Oz.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Houdini Cat Cartoon

Tabby and I thought this was so funny we had to share it, it's from the Wild About Harry blog dedicated to magician and escape artist Harry Houdiniat

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Tabby and My Birthday Cake

Tabby helped me celebrate my 36th birthday today.