Category Archives: Criminals, Killers, and Scam Artists

The Somerton Man: Australia’s Most Baffling Unsolved Case

Police photo of the Somerton Man.

Police photo of the Somerton Man.

The Black Dahlia. Jack the Ripper. The Zodiac Killings. JonBenet Ramsey. The Axeman of New Orleans.

These are some of the most captivating unsolved murder mysteries of all time and they share a common thread: all of the victims are known.

The Tamam Shud, also known as the Somerton Man, case is different. In this instance, the victim is an unknown man with some mysterious items in his possession and no known cause of death.

 

Somerton Beach

 On November 30th, 1948, a couple went for a walk along Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia, around sunset. During their walk, they found a man lying in the sand, smoking a cigarette. His head was propped up against the seawall near a set of stairs leading to the nearby road and homes.

Somerton Beach. The place where the victim's body was found is marked with a black X.

Somerton Beach. The place where the victim’s body was found is marked with a black X.

On a warm summer day like this, the couple, John Lyons and his wife, believed the man to be a drunk who stumbled down the stairs. They thought nothing much about the man being dressed in a suit with highly polished shoes.

The couple continued on their walk. A half-hour later, they returned to the scene to find the man lying motionless in the same position they’d found him earlier. Mosquitoes buzzed around his face. The couple joked that he was “dead to the world” drunk.

The next morning, John Lyons learned the man wasn’t dead drunk the night before. He was dead. Lyons saw a commotion on the beach where the man laid the night before and went to investigate the scene.

He found the man lying in the same position as yesterday. There was a half-smoked cigarette resting on the dead man’s collar.

Authorities took the dead man to the Royal Adelaide Hospital where time of death was put at 2 am on December 1st, seven hours after John Lyons discovered him on the beach.

 

The Somerton Man’s Possessions & Autopsy

The Somerton Man's suitcase and personal effects.

The Somerton Man’s suitcase and personal effects.

A full autopsy was performed on December 2nd, but no cause of death was established. It was determined that his pupils were smaller than normal and his spleen was three times larger than normal. His liver was filled with congested blood. His calves and feet resembled those of a ballet dancer.

The man’s last meal was a pasty. Multiple tests of blood and organ tissue failed to find any source of the poison originally believed to be the cause of death.

The man’s identity could not be determined from the autopsy.

The items in Somerton Man’s possession were equally notable for what was found as for what wasn’t.

Investigators found two combs, some matches, a pack of chewing gum, and a pack of Army Club brand cigarettes. Seven of the cigarettes had been replaced by a pricier brand called Kensitas. He had tickets from Adelaide to the beach, explaining how he arrived.

There was no cash or coin, no wallet, no form of ID.

The pocket had been repaired with orange thread yet all of the brand labels had been removed from his clothing.

Fingerprints of the Somerton Man were taken and circulated around the world, but no one could identify the man definitively.

 

The Suitcase and the Scrap of Paper

 On January 12th, 1949, South Australia police discovered a suitcase that belonged to the Somerton Man at the Adelaide rail station. It had been in the station’s possession since November 30th.

Once again, the Somerton Man’s possessions led to more questions than answers. Police discovered the orange thread used to darn the pocket. They discovered a stencil kit used to stencil cargo before shipment. There was a table knife with the handle altered. There was a feather stitched jacket determined to be American in origin.

The suitcase bore no stickers or tags. The labels had been removed from all but three pieces of clothing. The labels left read “Kean” and “T. Keane”, but these clues led to Somerton Man’s identity.

A second search of Somerton Man’s possessions in April 1949 by John Cleland led to the most famous clue in the case. John Cleland’s investigation found a scrap of tightly rolled paper inside a small watch fob packet in Somerton Man’s pants. The original investigation had overlooked the fob pocket.

Police photo of the scrap of paper found among the Somerton Man's belongings.

Police photo of the scrap of paper found among the Somerton Man’s belongings.

Cleland opened up the piece of paper and discovered two words: Tamam Shad.  In English, “It is ended.” These are the last words of the English version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Khayyam’s rubiayat’s had become popular in Australia during World War II with copies being produced throughout the country.

The police took this clue to mean this was a suicide, rather than a murder. An official murder investigation was never opened. Instead, this was treated as a missing person’s investigation.

 

The Rubaiyat

 The case took a new turn when a copy of the Rubaiyat was brought to the Adelaide police on July 23rd, 1949. A man brought the book into the station, claiming that it had been in his car. The book had been found in the backseat by the man’s brother-in-law during a drive in December and was placed in the car’s glove compartment.

When the man opened the book, he found the last page missing. Prompted by a newspaper article, he brought the book to the police where Detective Sergeant (D.S.) Lionel Leane took possession of it.

In the back of the book, D.S. Leane found a phone number penciled into the cover. There were some capital letters pressed into the cover as well, but the police had a new lead in the case.

The phone number was unlisted but belonged to a nurse nicknamed Jestyn. Her name was never publicly released by the police. She lived a block away from where Somerton Man’s body was found on the beach.

Jestyn was an unwed mother of a 2-year-old named Robin in 1949, though she was living with her future husband at the time. She admitted to giving a copy of the Rubaiyat to a man named Alfred Boxall during World War II as a gift.

Police initially believed that Boxall would turn out to be the Somerton Man, but he was quite alive when they arrived to speak with him. He presented the police with his copy of the Rubaiyat, completely intact with Jestyn’s inscription to him.

Police brought Jestyn in a year later, in 1950, to question her again. She had no recollection of any phone call with Somerton Man. She was shown photos of the Somerton Man. D.S. Leade’s notes state that she was “completely taken back, to the point of giving the appearance that she was about to faint.”

Despite her reaction to the photos, Jestyn denied that she knew the man.

The exact copy of the Somerton Man’s Rubiayat has never been located.

 

SomertonManCodeThe Code

The most tantalizing clue in this case is the code D.S. Leane discovered in the back of the book in capital letters. The code was released to the public, sparking a flurry of amateur codebreakers. Naval Intelligence in Australia attempted to break the code as well, but without success.

The code was determined to read:

WRGOABABD

MLIAOI

WTBIMPANETP

MLIABOAIAQC

ITTMTSAMSTGAB

However, the Australian Navy determined in the 1950s that the code is unbreakable due to the limited sample size. They believed the code to be in English and the letters to represent the first letter of a word.

Attempts in the last few years by Derek Abbott, a professor of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at the University of Adelaide, using computers to decipher the code have been limited by the processing power of a single computer. A single attempt to search for phrases using 5 letters, MLIAB, took over 18 hours to generate a single result.

Professor Abbot has reached out to Google for permission to access their information directly, but Google has refused as of publication.

 

The Prevailing Theories

 There are two prevailing theories regarding the fate of the Somerton Man.

Theory 1: The Somerton Man was the father of Jestyn’s son, Robin. This theory is based on rare genetic similarities between the Somerton Man and Robin, such as the shape of the teeth and the ears. DNA testing has shown that Robin has American relatives.

The theory suggests that Jestyn, unwed at the time, had a child with the Somerton Man. She kept the father a secret when she met her future husband. She then told the Somerton Man that she could no longer allow him to see his child. Devastated, the Somerton Man took his own life using an exotic poison that was undiscovered in the original testing.

Theory 2: The Somerton Man was a spy working for another nation. The code in the book is believed to be a secret message for his spymaster. However, Somerton Man was caught and poisoned by the cigarettes he was smoking.

Since the man was a spy, no nation has come forward to claim him as their agent, even after all this time.

Both theories have their merits, but without more evidence, the identity of the Somerton Man will remain unknown.

 

Skye Vitiritti is a writer of historical fiction and horror novels. Her latest work, My Eternal Crusade: Jerusalem 1183, comes out on March 1, 2017. You can follow her on Twitter @TheWriterSkye or on her website, www.skyevitiritti.com

 

Sources:

Balint, R. (2010) The Somerton Man: An Unsolved History. Retrieved from http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/csrj/article/view/1520

 

Dash, M. (2011, August 12) The Body on Somerton Beach. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-body-on-somerton-beach-50795611/

 

Zyga, L. (2015, June 2) After years of forencis investigation, Somerton Man’s identity remains a mystery (Part 1: History and Code). Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2015-06-years-forensic-somerton-identity-mystery.html

 

Zyga, L. (2015, June 3) After years of forencis investigation, Somerton Man’s identity remains a mystery (Part 2: DNA, isotopes, and autopsy). Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2015-06-years-forensic-somerton-identity-mystery_1.html

Grave Guns and Grave Torpedoes

A Mortsafe, another, less spectacular method for protecting graves from bodysnatchers.  By Kim Traynor - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A Mortsafe, another, less spectacular method for protecting graves from bodysnatchers.
By Kim Traynor – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Throughout the 18th and 19th century, a ghoulish profession thrived in England the the United States. They bore such names as resurrection men and grave robbers, but they were best known as body snatchers. The profession arose as a result of advancements in medicine and a boom in the number of medical schools across both countries, which in turn led to a spike in the demand for corpses needed for dissection in anatomy classes. Legal methods of procuring bodies, which primarily relied upon the executions of criminals or on individuals to donate their bodies to science, were woefully inadequate to keeping up with the demand. Body snatchers plied their gruesome trade to fill the gap, stealing recently buried bodies from cemeteries and selling them for a profit to doctors and medical academies.

The cottage industry of body snatching, in turn, created a demand for methods to protect the graves of the recently departed. One method is shown in the image above–the Mortsafe, a cage to keep robbers out, contrary to the popular belief that the bars were meant to keep the dead in. But perhaps the strangest of these security measures were the cemetery guns and torpedoes. Cemetery guns were flintlock guns mounted on graves that were attached to trip wires, which when disturbed would trigger the weapon. They could be loaded with bird shot, rock salt, or more deadly projectiles. The weapons would be removed by cemetery keepers during the day so that loved ones could visit graves without fear, then reset at night when the resurrection men would be more likely to attempt to steal bodies. The routine also ensured that any scouts sent by gangs of resurrection men to look for any such defenses would be none the wiser.

Cemetery guns were banned in England in the 1820s, when the trend for grave defense turned to more passive means such as placing heavy iron grates over graves. Across the Atlantic, the United States was dealing with its own epidemic of grave robbery, and similar to their English cousins, Americans went to extreme means to stop the scourge. The crime became especially popular after the Civil War, when medical schools were opening at an unprecedented rate. It was no coincidence then that several so-called “grave torpedoes” hit the market during the post war years.

These devices built on the Civil War torpedo, which today we would call mines, and adapted the design to the needs of grave defense. The device built by inventor Thomas N Howell weighted in at 8lbs and carried a charge of powder that would be detonated via percussion cap when a metal plate placed above the device was disturbed. These and other designs proved effective: one of Howell’s torpedoes killed three men in 1881 in a cemetery in Knox County, Ohio.

Cemeteries once again became places of peace rather than mine fields when changes in the law and technology led to the end of bodysnatching. Medical schools were eventually allowed to acquire unclaimed bodies, and gradually the stigma of donating one’s body to science reduced, leading to more donations. This reduced demand for illegal cadavers. The advent of refrigeration in the early 1900s allowed schools to store cadavers, another blow to the bodysnatching trade. Finally, many states enacted laws requiring coffins to be placed inside heavy, sealed vaults, making the bodies within all but inaccessible to would be robbers. The age of the bodysnatcher, and the grave weapons meant to ward them off, had come to an end.

Sources:

Eger, Chris, “Cemetery Guns and Grave Torpedoes.” Guns.com. August 6, 2012. Guns.com. January 17, 2016. http://www.guns.com/2012/08/06/cemetery-guns-grave-torpedoes/

“Grave-Robbing,” Ohiohistorycentral.org. Ohio History Connection. January 17, 2016. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Grave-robbing?rec=2701

Onion, Rebecca, “The ‘Cemetery Gun’: One Defense Against Grave Robbers.” Slate.com. January 29, 2013. Slate. January 17, 2016. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/01/29/cemetery_gun_invented_to_thwart_grave_robbers.html

 

Ken McElroy and the Town That Kept Silent

The Grave of Ken McElroy By Bos174 (Took picture at cemetery) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Grave of Ken McElroy
By Bos174 (Took picture at cemetery) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Life in small town America is increasingly romanticized as more and more Americans move to cities. Pop culture likes to portray rural hamlets as idyllic places with quirky citizens who are full of homespun wisdom, getaways where the materialistic city dweller can vacation away from their stressful urban lifestyle and maybe learn a few life lessons while they’re at it.

While there is perhaps some truth to this, another trope about small towns is that they all harbor deep, dark secrets whose truths are not easily discovered. After all, small towns are in reality large families, with a sense of identity that comes from close kinship among its members. Secrets die hard when a community closes ranks and refuses to talk.

Skidmore, Missouri was just such a town. On July 10, 1981, the town’s most notorious member, Ken Rex McElroy, was gunned down in broad daylight in front of thirty or forty townspeople. More than 30 years later, authorities are no closer to solving the mystery of who pulled the trigger.

 

Skidmore’s Town Bully

Ken McElroy was the terror of Skidmore. A big man with a bad temper and no conscience, he did as he pleased and if anyone had the audacity to get in his way, he didn’t hesitate to resort to violence. His reign of terror over the 437 residents of Skidmore lasted for decades. From assault, to rape, to theft, McElroy was such a prolific criminal that his attorney, Richard McFadin, claimed to have defended his client from upwards of three felony convictions a year. McElroy, who never seemed to be hurting for money despite never holding down a job, paid his attorney in cash whatever amount was necessary to stay out of jail.

The strategy seemed to work, because despite a laundry list of crimes, law enforcement could never make any charges stick to McElroy. It seemed that the bully would continue to terrorize Skidmore Indefinitely. That is, until McElroy tried to murder the local grocer, the elderly Bo Bowenkamp, over some candy.

Trena McElroy, Ken’s wife, told her husband that Lois Bownenkamp, the grocer’s wife, had accused their daughter of stealing candy. Mrs. Bowenkamp tried to soothe the hurt feelings by explaining away the incident as a misunderstanding, but Ken McElroy, never one to let matters drop, offered the elderly woman money to fight Trena McElroy over the dispute. When she refused, McElroy camped out in his pickup truck outside the Bowenkamp’s home at night, on two occasions firing his shotgun into the air.

One July night in 1980, McElroy took the dispute to dangerous proportions. Bo Bowenkamp stood on the loading dock of his grocery store, waiting for a repairman. McElroy pulled up in his pickup truck, pulled out his shotgun, and unloaded a round of buckshot at the elderly grocer. The round tore through Bowenkamp’s neck, and the old man collapsed. McElroy fled the scene, but was picked up later that night by State Troopers. Bowenkamp survived his wounds. The town was outraged by the attack, calling for justice. McElroy would subsequently go to trial, but justice grinds slow, and the bureaucratic court system would once again fail Skidmore, setting the stage for an act of vigilante justice that remains unsolved to this day.

 

Skidmore’s Reckoning

Ken McElroy received a two year sentence for shooting Bowenkamp. McFadin put in an appeal, and much to Skidmore’s dismay, McElroy was freed on bond. He showed up in the D&G Tavern with a rifle, telling the bar dwellers that he intended to finish the job he started the previous year. Carrying the rifle violated his bond, and several witnesses agreed to testify. But once again McElroy was able to duck his comeuppance, because his lawyer was able to postpone the bond hearing. Skidmore was infuriated, and some among the villagers decided enough was enough.

On Friday July 10, 1981, Ken and Trena McElroy drove into town in Ken’s signature pickup truck. McElroy pulled up in front of the bar and went inside for some cigarettes. A large crowd gathered, including patrons from the bar. McElroy started his truck and lit a cigarette. Shots cracked through the morning stillness, coming from both in front of and behind the truck. McElroy was struck several times in the head and neck.  No one called for an ambulance, and when sheriff’s deputies arrived, no one but Trena said they saw anything. The wall of silence went up that day, and to this day it remains standing.

More than thirty years have passed since that July morning when Skidmore gunned down its most notorious citizen. Those years have not been kind to Skidmore—its population has shrunk by nearly half, and the local grocery, the bar and the gas station have all closed down. Many of the protagonists in this strange story have moved on or passed away. Meanwhile, the murder of Ken McElroy remains an open case, one that law enforcement will not solve anytime soon.

 

Sources:

Bradley, Donald. “3 decades on, who killed Skidmore town bully still secret.” Mcclatchydc.com. August 29, 2010. McClatchyDC. March 6, 2016. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/crime/article24591469.html

Reese, Diana. “Law fails Skidmore.” Washingtonpost.com. July 10, 2012. The Washington Post. March 6, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/post/law-fails-skidmore-mo/2012/07/10/gJQAV7L7aW_blog.html

Sulzberger, A.G. “Town Mute for 30 Years About a Bully’s Killing.” Nytimes.com. December 15, 2010. March 6, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/us/16bully.html

 

 

 

A Prophet Reborn as a Con Artist: The Strange Story of Moses of Crete

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt.

Every couple of years, a doomsday preacher makes headlines by announcing that the end of the world is near.  The majority (myself included) laugh them off as cranks, but a minority are at the very least afraid that they might have something, while an even smaller minority take their dire predictions seriously. When the day inevitably comes and goes without incident, the faithful are left to try and rationalize their prophet’s failure, while the bulk of his followers move on. Then the next doomsayer makes his prediction, and the cycle begins again.

The doomsday prophet trend is far from a modern phenomenon. Perhaps since humans have been able to conceive of the larger world and their place in it. Certainly there are many, many examples in history of doomsday prophets who have led their people to ruin and destruction in the name of misguided belief. This is not a topic explored much here on Oddly Historical, so I thought I might begin with a rather obscure false prophet from the 5th century CE. While not a doomsday prophet per se, he shared much in common with such modern day “holy” men: a messiah complex, a message that attracted a devoted following, actions that led to the destitution and/or demise of his followers, and a complete inability to take responsibility for his actions. His name was Moses of Crete, and in 448 CE he claimed he would lead the Jews of Crete to the Promised Land.

 

Moses, Reborn

Many devout today look to scripture to try and calculate when the end will come. There was a similar trend in the 5th century among the Jewish community, except rather than attempting to calculate the end of time, devoted Jews attempted to use the Talmud to calculate when their Messiah would come. The Jews had been scattered after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE after a Jewish revolt in Palestine. Many longed to rebuild what had been lost, and to have their Promised Land returned to them.

A man among the Cretan Diaspora claimed he could do just that. His origins have been lost to history, but he came out of obscurity to fulfill the Talmudic calculations of a Jewish messiah. He asserted that he was Moses. Not any Moses; the Moses, the Old Testament figure who led his people from the bonds of slavery to the Promised Land of Palestine.

Moses of Crete said he would do the same for the Jews of Crete. He traveled all over Crete, attracting followers all the while. He persuaded his followers to give up all of their property and follow him, promising that if they did so he would part the seas and lead them over dry land back to Jerusalem.

When the time came for the miraculous event, Moses led his faithful to a high cliff over the sea. What followed was a scene of horror: the foremost of the faithful threw themselves off the cliff into the seas below, smashing themselves on the rocks or drowning in the tumultuous seas. If it weren’t for fisherman nearby, more would have died. Those who survived returned to tell the remaining faithful of their prophet’s failure. When the enraged followers tried to find their former leader and punish him for his deception, they found he had slipped away without a trace. His disappearance, as sudden as his arrival, led many to believe that Moses of Crete had been a demon made flesh, bent on the destruction of the Cretan Jews. In reality, Moses was a con artist and a deceiver who, like his modern day counterparts, played on the vulnerabilities of his audience to bend them to his will. Diabolical he may have been, but his evil was very human.

 

Sources

Lendering, Jona. “Moses of Crete (448 CE).” Livius.org. January 30, 2016. http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants18.html

“Pseudo-Messiahs.” JewishEncyclopedia.com. 2002-2011. January 30, 2016. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11425

 

The Denver Spider Man

As regular readers may have guessed from my focus on the morbid and macabre, I’m a horror fan. So this month is like Christmas for people like me. In celebration of the spookiest month of the year, I plan to devote my posts this month exclusively to the darker, scarier side of history. While it landed before October, my post last week about crossroads burials was a good start.

This week, we will visit the 20th century to find a murder so bizarre that it reads like something from the mind of Arthur Conan Doyle, or perhaps Stephen King, than actual history. The killing, which occurred in Denver, Colorado in October 1941, was a real-life version of the mystery classic: the “locked room mystery.”

Phillip Peters, a 73 year old retired railroad auditor, was home alone the night of his murder. His wife had broken her hip in a fall and was staying in the hospital. One night he did not show up to visit his wife. A neighbor, fearing something had gone wrong, went to check on Peters but found the house dark. No one answered the door. She gathered a group of neighbors. They found every door and window locked. A girl was able to clamber inside the house through a loose screen she pried open. What she found inside was an awful site: the kindly Phillip Peters, covered in blood, bludgeoned to death in his own bedroom.

When the police arrived, they found a peculiar scene. There were no signs of a break-in, and nothing had been stolen. Two cast iron shakers were found in the kitchen, one dusty, the other clean.  A damp towel stained with blood lay nearby. Nothing about the killing made sense—the killer could only have come from inside the house. And judging by the violence of the attack, it seemed it could only have been pulled off by a berserk giant of a man. With no obvious hiding place for a huge psychopath, the police were stumped.

Odd stories began to crop up around the empty little house. Neighborhood children whispered that they saw lights on in the upstairs. A neighbor claimed to have seen a ghostly face in the windows. Neighbors started to believe that the house, the site of such a weird and violent attack, was haunted.

Despite the rumors, Mrs. Peters, finally recovered from her hip surgery, wanted to return to the home she had shared with her husband for fifty years. One night, startled perhaps by a noise in the “haunted” house, Mrs. Peters fell and suffered another fracture. Rather than go back to the hospital, she opted to heal at home, and a nurse was sent to care for her. The nurse soon began to report strange noises in the walls and ceilings. Police investigated, but found nothing. Then one night the nurse saw the rowdy spirit on the stairs. It chattered its teeth at her. She resigned, and a neighbor took over care of Mrs. Peters.

The neighbor sighted the spook as well.  One night, she heard a noise and hurried into the dark kitchen to see the ghost on the stairs. She reported it was a scrawny, filthy creature that seemed to vanish when she screamed. Mrs. Peters went to live with her son in Western Colorado, while police, skeptical of all this ghost talk, decided to stake out the now infamous ghost house.

It was July by this time. Two patrolmen were on duty staking out the house when one caught a glimpse of a face in the upstairs window. He nudged his partner, who looked up in time to see a fleeting glimpse of movement. The officers ran across the street and broke down the door. They searched the downstairs, noticing an odd stench permeating the house. As they were moving upstairs, more police were arriving. The two officers saw a door swinging shut in an upstairs room. They  yanked open the door to find two dirty bare feet kicking in the air. One officer grabbed the struggling “ghost” by the ankles and yanked. Finally the ghost gave in, and soon was laid out unconscious on the bedroom floor, having fainted in his botched escape attempt.

The figure laid out on the floor was scrawny and clothed in filthy rags. Once the “ghost” was taken into custody, he revealed himself as Theodore Coney. He told a bizarre story. He’d met  the late Phillip Peters when he was 17. The two were briefly acquainted through the Mandolin Club, and occasionally ran into one another throughout their lives. As Phillip moved on, got married, and embarked on his career with the railroad, Theodore became little more than a drifter, unable to hold a job and in poor health.

He drifted back to the Phillip house in September of 1941. He found the house empty, stole some food, and found the little attic room above the closet where he slept. The opening to the attic was about as wide as a cigar box, and it was overlooked in the initial investigation of the house because police thought no one could fit up there.

But Theodore managed to wriggle his way in there, where he stayed for months. He initially stayed quiet, sleeping when Mr. Phillip was awake and coming downstairs to eat when he was out of the house. Theodore grew bolder over time, and eventually started shadowing Peters from room to room.

The night of the murder, Theodore thought Peter Phillip was out and about, and came down to raid the ice box. But Peter had been napping, and came upon the scraggly interloper.  On an impulse, Theodore killed his unwitting benefactor and escaped back to the attic.

After his confession, Theodore’s odd story hit the papers. He became known as the Denver Spiderman, for his long, thin fingers and odd manner. The Denver Spiderman was sentenced to life in prison at the Canon City Penitentiary, where he died on May 16, 1967.

 

Sources:

Mayo, Mike. “American Murder: Criminals, Crime, and the Media.”  Visible Ink Press, 2008. Pg 76-77

“The Spider Man.”  Prisonmuseum.org. Retrieved using the Wayback Machine on 10/4/2015 http://web.archive.org/web/20040213070643/http://www.prisonmuseum.org/spider.htm

 

http://web.archive.org/web/20040213070643/http://www.prisonmuseum.org/spider.htm

An Enduring Cold War Mystery–The Assassination of Georgi Markov

"Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

“Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

The Cold War was a strange, tumultuous time in our history, full of odd happenings and intrigue. Some real-life incidents are stranger than anything concocted for a James Bond film. Perhaps the most infamous of these incidents was the assassination of the Bulgarian writer and political dissident, Georgi Markov, who died in September 1978, three days after an assassin injected a ricin laden pellet into his leg using an air powered gun concealed as an umbrella. The event spawned a mystery that even the legendary Scotland Yard has yet to solve: who killed Georgi Markov?

 

A Veil of Secrecy

In order to understand the assassination, it is important to get at least some idea of what went on in Communist Bulgaria, particularly the culture of secrecy and paranoia that would make such a heinous act possible. This is difficult, as many records from that time period are gone, up in smoke in the wake of the collapse of Communism in the early 90s.

Still, some facts are well known. Bulgaria was among the most repressive of the Warsaw Pact nations, and it had close ties with the Soviet Union. The dictator running the show at the time of the assassination was a die hard Communist by the name of Todor Zhikov, who ruled his country with an iron fist. Like most paranoid dictators, he crushed any opposition ruthlessly.

"Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B0115-0010-066, Berlin, VI. SED-Parteitag, Warnke, Shiwkow - Zhivkov" by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0115-0010-066 / Schaar, Helmut / CC-BY-SA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons -

Tidor Zhivkov “Bundesarchiv Bild 183-B0115-0010-066, Berlin, VI. SED-Parteitag, Warnke, Shiwkow – Zhivkov” by Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0115-0010-066 / Schaar, Helmut / CC-BY-SA. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Commons –

This is where Georgi Markov enters the picture. Markov was an author and playwright who was well regarded in Communist Bulgaria for his works. However, as time wore on and the abuses of the regime became more apparent, Markov’s work became increasingly critical of Communism in general and Zhivkov in particular. The writer began receiving death threats from Bulgarian security forces, and was the victim of at least two assassination attempts.

Markov defected to the West in 1969. He moved to London, where he began to work for the BBC World Service. He also did work for Radio Free Europe. a radio station that broadcast across the iron curtain, where he continued to criticize the Zhivkov regime.

Nine years after defecting, on September 7, 1978, Markov was waiting for a buss on Waterloo Bridge when his old enemies caught up with him in the form of an unidentified assailant who jabbed him in the leg with the tip of an umbrella, squeezed a hidden trigger, and injected the unsuspecting author with a tiny pellet of ricin, one of the world’s deadliest poisons. He died three days later in a London hospital.

 

A Twisted Web

800px-New_Scotland_Yard_sign_3The easy answer to the question of who killed Georgi Markov is that the Bulgarian state was responsible. While this is true, it does not get to the specifics of the case–who actually pulled the trigger? Who supported the trigger man? Who made the weapon, especially the poison?

In the 30+ years since the killing, the Bulgarian state has done little to advance the investigation. Obviously, Communist Bulgaria was not going to fess up to killing a dissident on foreign soil. Modern Bulgaria is looking to move on from its dark past, and would rather forget the whole killing even happened.

The investigation then has been left to Scotland Yard, and various journalists who have taken an interest in the case. However, their efforts have been hampered by the actions the Bulgarian secret services took on the wake of the collapse of Communism. Many records related to the killing were destroyed by the former Bulgarian intelligence chief, General Vladimir Todorov, who served 16 months in prison for the crime. Still, vigilant investigators have managed to uncover an astonishing amount about who was involved in the crime on that September day. They even managed to discover the identity of a man closely linked to the killing; he may even be the killer himself.

In the immediate years after the fall of Communism, two Soviet spies came forward with information regarding the Markov case. The first was a Russian-British double agent named Oleg Gordievski. He claimed that the weapon used in the killing–both the umbrella and the ricin itself–was supplied by the Soviet Union’s spy service, the KGB. He went on to claim that the murder itself was conducted by Bulgarian agents. The second former spy, a man named Oleg Kalugin,  made the claim that non other than Todor Zhikov ordered the assassination. Naturally, the former dictator never admitted to any part in the killing.

 

A Viable Suspect?

While these revelations cleared away some of the fog surrounding Markov’s death, they shed no light on the identity of the killer himself. However, in 2005, a Bulgarian journalist struck gold after doing six years of research in the old security service archives. He found files implicated a man named Francesco Gullino, a Danish citizen originally born in Italy, as a suspect. Gullino was arrested at the Bulgarian border in1970 for smuggling drugs. From these dubious beginnings, Gullino was recruited into the Bulgarian spy apparatus. He used his antique business as a front for his clandestine activities, and received the equivalent of thousands of dollars in payouts from the Bulgarian government during the years he served. His code name was “Agent Piccadilly.”

Records show that Gullino flew to London three times in 1977 and 1978. He left the city on a flight for Rome the day after Markov was poisoned. The same records indicate that Gullino was the only Bulgarian agent present in London at the time. This would strongly suggest that he was the trigger-man, although other investigators claim that Gullino was not trained to kill but rather acted to facilitate the killing by transporting the weapon. According to this theory, as many as five people were involved in the assassination.

For its part, Scotland Yard remains mum on the matter, refusing to comment on an open case. Gullino himself, who lives in a small Austrian village, also refuses to speak much on the matter. He does admit that he was working for the Bulgarians at the time of the killing, however. While not an admission of guilt, it does build up the case against him.

Even so, there is still hope for a resolution to this mystery. The statute of limitations for the murder in Bulgaria ran out in 2008, so any murderer would not be brought to justice in Markov’s homeland. While the Bulgarian government itself has no interest in justice for Markov, the Bulgarian people have a renewed interest in the matter. His literary works and principled stand against Communism have attracted new notice in Bulgaria, and new interest in his chilling end. Perhaps this new interest will spur the Bulgarian government to make a new effort to solve the case and remove this particular stain from the country’s tattered history. There may yet be justice for Georgi Markov.

 

Sources:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/9949856/Prime-suspect-in-Georgi-Markov-umbrella-poison-murder-tracked-down-to-Austria.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/poison-umbrella-murder-case-is-reopened-851022.html

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jun/06/nickpatonwalsh

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=221821881

“The Scientific Wonder of the Age” –Montana’s Petrified Man

Frauds, hoaxes, and curiosities of all sorts have a long history in America. Something about the American character lends us to enjoying a good tall tale, no matter how ridiculous it is. That other, more famous facet of the American character–enterprise–has caused many a showman to fulfill that desire for all things strange. These tendencies have lead to some fairly strange incidents in American history, from the robber whose mummy wound up on the set of a 1970s TV show to a pygmy mummy who some believe could rewrite the history of humanity.

Perhaps the strangest curiosities to grace the American stage were those of the stone giants discovered in the 19th century. The first was the Cardiff Giant, supposedly a petrified man discovered on a farm near Cardiff in New York state. The figure was lauded as proof of the Biblical stories of giants, a fulfillment of the notion that many Americans held that their homeland was the Promised Land. The giant turned out to be a hoax, of course, but even when the Cardiff Giant was outed as a fake the stone giant fad lost little steam. For about 50 years, it seemed every town was home to some sort of ancient remains.

Even among this weirdness, one story of a petrified man stood head and shoulders above the others. Dubbed “The Scientific Wonder of the Age,” a stone figure discovered in Montana purported not to be an ancient corpse, but rather a famous figure who met his unfortunate end in the modern era.

 

The discovery

Montana’s petrified man was allegedly discovered in the Missouri River, downstream from Fort Benton, in 1897. The man who discovered the figure, Tom Dunbar, claimed to have seen the body wedged in the river bed when the water was low. He hooked a rope around it and dragged it free of the sand, only to bury it in the sandy soil of the river bank a little ways away from the water. He returned eighteen months later with a wagon to retrieve his prize. Like any good stone giant discoverer, Dunbar immediately began to exhibit his prize, wowing tourists visiting Yellowstone National Park with his tale.

In September of 1899, Dunbar sold the figure to Arthur Wellington Miles, who promptly displayed it in a pine coffin in an empty building near his lumberyard. The curiosity brought in big crowds, eager to pay to see the wonderful sight. Miles raked in a tidy sum of $60 a day ($1500 in today’s money) from curiosity seekers. The hefty sums made Miles dream bigger. He began to look east, toward New York, where the stone giant craze originally began.

However, neither Dunbar nor Miles had attached any origin story to the figure so far. If Miles was going to make it big in the east, his petrified man would need to have a draw. Conveniently, Miles was struck by a memory of a miner who viewed the curiosity in Butte had said. The miner, whose testimony was recorded in an article published in the New York World on December 31, 1899,  The miner said: “It is the General! God rest his soul! It is the General!”

 

The General

“The General” was none other than General Thomas Francis Meagher. An Irish revolutionary, Civil War General, and Governor of the Montana Territory in 1867, Thomas Meagher died under mysterious circumstances on the Missouri River, not far from where the statue that allegedly bore his likeness was found. The then governor disappeared the night of July 1, 1867, falling over the side of a steamboat into the Missouri River. Some suspected foul play, while others thought the fall might have been an unfortunate accident.

The petrified body seemed to indicate homicide. The statue seemed to have a hole in the head, which was concluded to be from the arrow of an Indian attacker. This same attacker bound the governor’s wrists after having dragged the stunned man out of the river. When the Indian heard Meagher’s friends hew and cry on the steamboat, he threw the governor into the river and slipped into the night. Then, by some mysterious process, the body was petrified on the river bottom for Thomas Dunbar to find 30 years later.

With his backstory in place, Arthur Wellington Miles organized a train tour for the petrified governor. Beginning in December 1899, the tour would hit St. Paul, Chicago, and other cities on the way to the ultimate goal: New York.

Unfortunately for Miles and his associates, the tour was not near as profitable as they had hoped. The initial enthusiasm for petrified men had been dulled by the exposure of the Cardiff Giant and the Solid Muldoon as out and out frauds. Crowds were skeptical of yet another stone giant, even if it was allegedly the body of a war hero. The tour flopped, leaving the businessmen in the red.

 

Where is Montana’s Petrified Man?

Montana’s petrified man enjoyed only a brief career in the spotlight. Arthur Miles held on to the figure for a number of years after the failed eastern tour. He sold the statue not long after World War I, and ever since the figure’s fate is murky at best. It popped up in the occasional fair or in the hands of a showman now and then through the early 20th century, but it has since been lost to history.

Unlike the Cardiff Giant, which was undeniably outed as a hoax, no one came forward to admit to making Montana’s petrified man. Skeptics of the day did not debunk the hoax, content to simply poke fun at people’s gullibility. In the wake of the Cardiff Giant fraud, no one but true believers and curiosity seekers took the idea of petrified men very seriously. While it is true that organic materials can become petrified given enough time, 30 years is hardly the time span needed for that to happen. Meaghers, more likely than not, met the fate of any other person lost to the water. There is no reason to think his fate was anything special. The petrified man was a hoax, an odd bit of flim flam now consigned to the junk drawer of history.

 

Sources:

Kemmick, Ed. “‘Petrified’ man was big attraction in turn-of-the-last-century Montana.” BillingsGazette.com. March 13, 2009. Billings Gazette. February 28, 2015. http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/article_4d6a8de1-67da-5325-8d52-91015cf3d968.html

“The Petrified Man Fake.” The Reading Eagle. December 25, 1899. pg 2. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1955&dat=18991225&id=G8MhAAAAIBAJ&sjid=Yp0FAAAAIBAJ&pg=2184,5390411

Marvin Heemeyer and the Killdozer

"Marvin Heemeyer" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

“Marvin Heemeyer” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia –

Small town life is often romanticized in movies and books as peaceful and quiet, especially since more and more Americans now live in cities than at any point in the country’s history. People who actually live in small towns know that while often the people are friendly and there is indeed a lot of quiet, often bad blood runs deep.

Grandby, Colorado was just such a town. It would have been little more than another dot on the vast map of the central US if it wasn’t for one day in June of 2004, when one of her sons went on a bizarre rampage that would leave much of the downtown area in ruins.

Marvin Heemeyer was the man behind the rampage. Small town folks often hold grudges, and hold them for a long time, perhaps because the drama relieves the monotony of an otherwise placid existence. Whatever the case, Heemeyer was just such a man. The roots of his odd attack ran back at least four years, to a dispute with the town over the construction of a concrete plant near the muffler shop he owned. Heemeyer believed the plant, situated across the street from his shop, would ruin his business. He fought with the local planning authority to have the plant’s construction blocked, but he lost. These were only the most recent in a long line of disputes with local authorities over various issues. Some, after Heemeyer’s rampage, like to paint him as a martyr, but many who knew him from before claimed that he tended to attract the drama that defined his life. Even so, nobody could see the outburst on that summer day coming.

Soon after the concrete batch plant went up, Heemeyer was forced to sell his muffler shop to pay off debts. And then he set to work. He took an old bullozer and built a concrete and steel shell around the cab, turning the vehicle into a make-shift tank. He equipped it with cameras and monitors to steer with, and cut portholes for guns. He stocked the make-shift tank—later dubbed the Killdozer—with two semiautomatic rifles, a .223 caliber rifle, and two handguns.

On June 5, Heemeyer burst out of the garage where he’d spent months constructing his revenge vehicle and took his vengeance. He began with the concrete batch plant that had strangled his business. Once he smashed the plant, he turned his wrath toward the town’s center. He struck next at the combination City Hall and library, which was only moments before hosting a group of children for story hour. A librarian rushed them out the back door just before Heemeyer’s attack.

Several more buildings fell to Heemeyer’s behemoth vehicle, including a bank, an electric utility ofice, and the home of the former mayor who supported the concrete plant. Meanwhile, police tried in vain to stop the rampage. They fired over two hundred shots at the tank, but they had nothing powerful enough to penetrate the hardened concrete and steel shell. One brave officer jumped on top the contraption to drop a flashbang grenade down the smokestack, but to no effect.

Some point out that no one died during the attack, and claim that Heemeyer was avoidoing doing harm to anyone. A look at witness testimony quickly dismisses that assertion. Heemeyer took shots at large propane tanks, evidently trying to detonate them. He also shot at electric transformers. Worse, he took potshots at police officers. Clearly, luck and the actions of local authorities in getting people out of harms way did more to prevent a tragedy than Heemeyer himself.

However, while the police might have prevented any deaths, they were powerless ot stop the Killdozer. Only the sheer weight of the contraption eventually did it in. The tank fell through the floor of the local hardware store and became stuck in the basement. When Heemeyer found he could not extricate himself from the hole, he chose to end his life, thus bringing an end to the rampage.

Granby is quiet these days, its brief moment of fame long since gone. Millions of dollars of damage was inflicted on the sleepy town by Heemeyer’s rampage, but the scars to the town’s collective psyche run deeper than any physical destruction one of its wayward sons could wreak. Now the people of Granby have to eye their neighbors with suspicion, unsure when a slight or dispute could lead to another day of terror like the one that struck Granby on June 5, 2004.

 

Sources:

Banda, P. Solomon. “Armed man in bulldozer goes on rampage in Colorado town.” tcnj.edu. June 5. 2004. Accessed on August 25, 2014. http://www.tcnj.edu/~hofmann/Granby/Granby.htm

 

Poppen, Julie. “After bulldozer rampage, town strives to rebuild trust.” Boston.com. October 24, 2004. Boston.com. August 25, 2014. http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2004/10/24/after_bulldozer_rampage_town_strives_to_rebuild_trust/

 

Reid, T.R. “Man Behind Rampage Found Dead.” WashingtonPost.com. June 6, 2004. The Washington Post. August 25, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A18948-2004Jun5.html

 

 

 

 

Bela Kiss–The Monster of Cinkota

A sketch of Bela Kiss.

A sketch of Bela Kiss.

Humans have long told stories about monsters. From the fantastic beasts of ancient mythology to the sometimes all too human monsters of modern cinema, lurid tales of death and violence have always entranced some facets of humanity. Why this is may always be a subject for debate, but in large part these stories allow us to play out very real fears in a safe manner, where the hero swoops in to save the day. Or, at the very least, we ourselves aren’t the ones being butchered.

Unfortunately, stories are not reality. The good guy does not always save the day, and the bad guy doesn’t always feel the sting of justice. Some murderous madmen ply their bloody trade and their identity is never discovered, passing into legend and becoming immortalized as a bogeyman of folklore. Some monsters are named, but manage to elude authorities just the same.

Such is the case of Bela Kiss (pronounced Kish). An amiable young bachelor, handsome with blonde hair and blue eyes, he was the darling of Cinkota, a small town outside of Budapest, Hungary in the early 1900s. A self taught tinsmith, young Bela Kiss did well for himself, and shared his good fortune with others. He married for a time, but his wife soon cheated on him with a young artist and the two eloped to America, or so Kiss said, leaving him Cinkota’s most eligible bachelor. Women wanted to be with him, married men in town envied him for the parade of beautiful women from Budapest who could be seen coming and going from his house. But Kiss, like many men of the time, was swept into the conflagration known as the Great War, his neighbors would learn a horrifying truth: Kiss was a killer of women, and a prolific one at that.

 

A ghastly discovery

The horrible truth about Bela Kiss was discovered two years after he marched to war in 1916. Kiss’ landlord, figuring that the reports of the tinsmith’s demise must have been true since it had been two years since anyone had seen or heard from him, decided to clean up the cottage and rent it out to a new occupant.

Starting with the obvious, the landlord began the cleanup operation with seven large metal barrels in the front yard. These barrels had been the subject of rumors for a long time. Neighbors whispered that Kiss was storing alcohol, while Kiss explained them away saying he was stockpiling gasoline for the coming war. The explanation seemed to satisfy everyone concerned, but despite that the landlord couldn’t help but be curious. He poked a small hole in one barrel, and was soon overwhelmed by the stench of death.

The landlord called the police, who descended on the scene and opened the barrels. Inside, they found the naked bodies of seven women, some with the killing ropes still around their neck, still others with puncture wounds in the neck that implied the killer had drained the bodies of blood. They had been pickled in wood alcohol.

A search of the grounds turned up more barrels and more bodies, for a grand total of 24 killed, including one male, later identified as Bikari, the young artist with whom Kiss’s wife had been unfaithful. Mrs. Kiss herself turned up in another barrel.

The ghastly discoveries continued. Police found evidence of how Kiss systematically lured in his victims. He placed adds in a Budapest newspaper, under the name Hoffman, advertising that he was a “lonely widower seeking female companionship.” He kept the correspondence in a series of packets, giving police a portrait of a predator.

Kiss, who had been luring lonely women from Budapest since 1903, targeted women with large bank accounts and few friends. He talked them into emptying their bank accounts, promising wedded bliss. Some 175 women had responded to his ads. One, Katherine Varga, sold her dressmaking business and planned to move to Cinkota with her handsome suitor. She was later positively identified as one of Kiss’s victims. Other women brought lawsuits against Kiss when they realized he was manipulating them, but they disappeared before the proceedings could finish. They too were discovered among the pickled and strangled bodies.

 

An elusive killer

The last anyone had heard from Bela Kiss, he had been fighting among the Carpathian Mountains. He was presumed dead. Regardless, police contacted the military ordering the immediate arrest of Bela Kiss. The problem, of course, was that the name Bela Kiss was as common in early 20th century Hungary as John Smith is today. Add to that the chaos of war, and the fact that Hungary’s armies were in disarray, and it is no wonder that the search came up largely fruitless.

There were a few tantalizing leads in the case, however. A Bela Kiss was discovered in a Serbian hospital, either injured or dying of typhoid, but by the time police could arrive to detain him, the killer had lain a dead soldier in his bed and escaped.

Later, in 1920, a member of the French Foreign Legion contacted authorities about a suspicious Legionnaire, who he believed might be the infamous Monster of Cinkota. The suspect had bragged about his proficiency with a garrote, the method used in the Cinkota murders. However, the mysterious soldier disappeared before he could be detained.

In 1932, a New York detective by the name of Henry Oswald sighted a man he thought might be Bela Kiss walking out of the subway at Times Square. The suspect was soon lost in the crowd. Rumors still persisted that Kiss had taken up residence in the New York area, working as a janitor, but no one could be sure.

No doubt, Bela Kiss is long dead now. While the long arm of the law sometimes falls short, death never fails to get its man eventually. Still, there is no way of knowing how many women fell prey to Bela Kiss’s deadly appetites in the years after the horrific discoveries in Cinkota in 1916.

 

Sources:

Bardsley, Marilyn and Noe, Denise. “The Crimes of Bela Kiss.” CrimeLibrary.com. Crime Library. February 7, 2015. http://www.crimelibrary.com/serial_killers/history/bela_kiss/1.html

Bovsun, Mara. “Hungarian man murdered 24, pickled each corpse in barrels of alcohol in early 1900s.” NYDailyNews.com. February 9, 2014. Daily News. February 7, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/justice-story/killer-murdered-24-pickled-corpses-barrels-article-1.1607445

The Cardiff Giant

Cardiff_Giant

The Cardiff Giant

The bones of the ancient dead have long fascinated people from every culture and era in history. America is no different. From the mummy of an outlaw that wound up doing time in a sideshow to a tiny enigma some believe is evidence for a new species of dwarfish human, odd remains have a habit of popping up within the vast expanses of the United States.

Mortal remains need not only take human form to arouse curiosity. Bones and fossils of the Earth’s most massive and ancient creatures have spawned not only awe but fearsome legends all their own. For example, the ancient Greek discovery of mammoth skulls, with their large central cavity that looks something like a massive eyes socket, and bones likely influenced the creation of the cyclops myth. The Greeks were not the only people to believe that giants walked the earth at one point in its history; indeed, the idea of giants is common to every culture around the globe, as other cultures likely discovered large remains and came to the same conclusion as the Greeks.

Of course, modern science does not recognize giant humanoids as part of the fossil record. Still, the belief in giants is prevalent even today, due in large part to their being mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Genesis as having existed before Noah’s Flood. In the 19th century, the belief in giants and the fascination with bones and bodies came together to produce an odd phenomena–that of the petrified giant. The most famous and best documented of these hoaxes occurred in 1869, when two laborers digging a well near Cardiff, New York discovered a giant stone man under the ground. The find was dubbed the Cardiff Giant, and it would go on to create a craze for petrified giants that would last for the next forty years before finally dying out in the early 20th century.

 

A giant discovery, and an even bigger fraud

The odd story of the Cardiff Giant begins not in the ancient past, but in 1866 with a man by the name of George Hull. A cigar-maker and a staunch atheist, Hull found himself in Iowa on business when he crossed paths with a Methodist revivalist, Reverend Turk. Hull and the good reverend exchanged heated words. The minister mentioned the scripture from Genesis referring to the antediluvian giants, which birthed an idea in Hull’s mind.

To put his odd plan in motion, Hull returned to Iowa in 1868 to find a suitable stone for his purposes. Once secured, he hired men to quarry the 11 foot block of gypsum, telling them it was for a monument to Abraham Lincoln to be built in New York. Then, he had the giant block shipped to Chicago, where it was shaped by a German stone cutter, who was sworn to secrecy. The finished giant, measuring about 10 feet long and weighing in at 3000 pounds, was shipped by rail to Cardiff, New York in November 1868, where Hull and his cousin and co-conspirator William Newell buried the bulky sculpture.

A year later, Newell hired Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols to dig a well on his property. On October 16, 1869 the workers hit stone beneath three feet of soil. One man reportedly exclaimed, upon clearing away dirt and seeing a large stone foot: “I declare, some old Indian has been buried here!”

What followed after the excavation of the statue could be described as “giant fever.” Once word got out, people flocked from miles around to see the sight. Hull and Newell erected a tent over the statue and charged $.25 a head to view it. When the crowds swelled and Hull saw he could bilk even more money from the eager sightseers, he doubled the price of admission.

The giant electrified the public. Many believed they’d laid eyes on a petrified giant straight out of the pages of scriptures. A pastor from Syracuse declared as much, and since when was the clergy wrong about anything?

Other experts did not agree. Some believed it was a statue built by missionaries to impress local Indian tribes, while others thought perhaps it was a statue made by some sort of ancient people who predated the coming of the white man, and perhaps the Indians themselves.

Andrew White, first president of Cornell University, visited the site to lay his skeptical eyes on the sensational find. Even the skeptic was impressed by the theatrics of it–a giant being lay in its grave, lit only by the soft light of candles, as quiet onlookers stood in quiet awe of its bulk and age. Of course, upon a closer look White found that the figure was a carved statue, and not a particularly good one at that.

Seeing White’s skeptical reporting, added to the fact that Newell himself had let the cat out of the bag, made Hull nervous. . He sold the giant to David Hannum and a syndicate of businessmen who were interested in the spectacle for a cool $23,000. The businessmen took the giant’s show on the road toward New York City.

Meanwhile, P.T, Barnum heard of the row surrounding the giant. The legendary showman offered Hannum and his cabal  $50,000 as is for the statue. When Hannum declined, Barnum simply sent a man to view the Cardiff Giant. The agent molded a lump of wax into the likeness of the giant, and Barnum paid to have his own version of the giant carved. When Hannum heard that Barnum’s giant was drawing crowds, he uttered famous words often attributed to P.T. Barnum himself: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

 

Giant mania ends

The Cardiff Giant was not the only so-called petrified man found in mid to late 19th century America. The country seemed to be teeming with the stone encased bodies of the ancient dead. Hull himself made another hoax body, this one called the Solid Muldoon, sporting a monkey-like tail no less. Hotels in New York commissioned their own giants, using the stone bodies to draw in crowds of curiosity seekers.

For its part, the Cardiff Giant was falling on hard times. Hannum took Barnum to court over the copying, where a judge told the hoaxer that he could have his injunction if the giant came and swore to his own genuineness. Needless to say, the skeptical judge threw the case out. Meanwhile, Yale paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh denounced the giant as a fraud, writing that the statue was probably of recent origins. George Hull finally confessed the hoax on December 10.

The statue that spawned dozens of imitations was outed as a fake. Still, over time the giant and its many imitations still brought in money for sideshows and scam artists, although the returns never matched those of the early giant craze.

In 1901, the statue made an appearance at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. Few paid it any attention, its moment of glory forty or more years gone. A publisher from Des Moines, Iowa bought the Cardiff Giant. He sold it in 1947 it to the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, New York, where it is currently on display.

 

Sources:

“The Cardiff Giant.” Farmersmuseum.org. The Farmer’s Museum. January 1, 2015.  http://www.farmersmuseum.org/node/2482

Rose, Mark. “When Giants Roamed the Earth.” Archaeology. Volume 58, number 6. November/December 2005. Retrieved from:  http://archive.archaeology.org/0511/etc/giants.html