Tag Archives: crime

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.



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.



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

Paul Ogorzow–The S-Bahn Murderer

A Type 477 train, used during the war. Ogorzow likely accosted and killed his victims on similar trains. "S-Bahn Berlin Baureihe 477" by Michael Dittrich - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A Type 477 train, used during the war. Ogorzow likely accosted and killed his victims on similar trains.
“S-Bahn Berlin Baureihe 477” by Michael Dittrich – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, the Nazis are seen as the epitome of evil. No other regime in history, save for maybe Stalin’s, are as reviled. It is easy to forget then that normal people continued to live their lives in the iron grip of Nazi power. Average Germans worked, went to school, got married, and traveled. Trains were a popular means of transportation at the time. Quick, safe, and relatively inexpensive, they were favorites especially for city dwellers.

If average Germans lived their lives, so to did the criminal element who preyed on them. Again, this is something that is often forgotten about the Nazi regime; criminals though they were, they had to deal with crime among their own people. One often forgotten case sheds light on daily life under the Nazi regime, and shows just how much their ideology warped their view of the world. Paul Ogorzow was a serial killer who preyed on women riding trains in the eastern districts of Germany. He came to be known to history as the S-Bahn Murderer.


Gruesome killings

The citizens of Berlin in 1940 were living with rationing, nightly blackouts, and the first regular Allied bombing raids. To add to their plight, the bodies of women who had suffered horrific abuse began to appear. Gerda Ditter’s body appeared in October, strangled and stabbed to death. In November, another young woman was thrown from a moving train. And on December 4, two more bodies were found, thrown from a moving train. One woman survived, the other didn’t.

On December 22, the body of Elisabeth Bungener was found with a fractured skull close to the railroad tracks. A week later, the body of another woman who suffered a fractured skull was found near the tracks. Another body was found in January 1941. After that, the killer disappeared for five weeks. Then on February 11 Johanna Voigt’s body was discovered, also with a fractured skull. The final victim, Frieda Koziol, was found five months later in July.


The hunt for a killer

While the infamous S-Bahn Murderer was on his rampage, he was being pursued by the Kriminalpolizei (aka ‘Kripo’), Berlin’s serious crime unit. But they had a tough row to hoe. Their biggest antagonist wasn’t the S-Bahn murderer, but the blackout. The killer’s victims weren’t the only bodies that appeared around the railroad tracks; in fact, in December of 1940 alone there were 28 deaths attributed to accidents on the railway. These were direct results of the blackout—people were hit by trains either when crossing tracks or when they accidentally stepped off train platforms. In addition, the blackouts had sparked a crime wave in Berlin, distracting from the investigation and adding to the body count as well.

Besides the blackout, the investigators were hampered by the Nazi regime. The government did not want word of the killings to cause fear among the general populace, and so they tamped down on reporting. This deprived the investigation of any tips from the general public.

Other hindrances to the investigation came from biases that shaped the investigator’s outlook. There was a tendency to trust people in uniform who held an official position. Paul Ogorzow worked for German Railways, and his uniform proved as a kind of shield.

A bigger bias though was the racial prejudices the Nazis became infamous for. Some believed the killer had to be a Jew, because large numbers of Jews worked on German Railways. Others thought it might be a British Agent attempting to sow fear in the capital. Given the Nazi’s tendency toward bizarre espionage, it at least seemed plausible. Another theory was that the killer was one of the thousands of foreign workers who were brought to Berlin to fill the need for labor. Given the large numbers of foreigners in the city, this seemed plausible.

That is, until a serious look at German Railway employees netted one name again and again. Paul Ogorzow was known among his coworkers for his hatred of women and his slacker tendencies—he had a habit of wandering off during his shifts. If it were not for his coworker’s suspicions, the Kripo may not have looked at him at all, because he was a married man with two children. Not to mention, he was a Nazi party member.

Ogorzow was brought in and subjected to intense questioning. He eventually cracked and confessed to eight murders and several assaults. His weapon of choice seemed to be a length of lead cable. In a bizarre attempt to save himself, he claimed that a Jewish doctor’s treatment for gonorrhea had awakened his murderous urges. The Kripo didn’t buy it, nor did the government. It seems that Ogorzow’s Nazi allegiance cloud not save him. He was executed by guillotine (some sources say by firing squad) the same month he committed his final murder.



Moorhouse, Roger, “Paul Ogorzow—The Nazi Serial Killer.” RogerMoorhouse.com. July 31, 2010. Accessed September 8, 2014. http://www.rogermoorhouse.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=69:paul-ogorzow-the-nazi-serial-killer&Itemid=30

“Paul Ogorzov.” Murderpedia.org http://murderpedia.org/male.O/o/ogorzov-paul.htm





The New Jersey Ghost Sniper

Photo from 1890 of boys playing with marbles. Did mischievous boys such as these and a child play thing spark a panic in Camden, New Jersey in 1927?

Photo from 1890 of boys playing with marbles. Did mischievous boys such as these and a child play thing spark a panic in Camden, New Jersey in 1927?

Shootings are all too common in the United States. Most of the incidents are straight forward –an argument gets out of hand, someone pulls a gun in the heat of the moment, and someone else ends up dead. That, or some scum bag decides to take out their anger and frustration on a large, unsuspecting group of people.  Gun crime is nothing new; it has existed as long as there have been guns. However, these days you aren’t likely to come across a gun related crime quite as weird as the Camden Ghost Sniper, the name given to the alleged perpetrator of a very odd set of crimes between 1927 and 1928 in Camden, New Jersey.


A ghostly assailant

Police officer from the mid-1920s.

Police officer from the mid-1920s.

The Ghost Sniper’s reign of terror first hit the Camden Courier-Post’s front page on January 25, 1928, when a bus windshield and the wind shields of four other vehicles on Camden Bridge were ‘strangely shattered’ by an unknown projectile. The windows appeared to be shot through with a bullet, although no fragments or shell casings were found. So it was with the first five shootings. Most notably, at 4:30am Bridge Policeman John J. Rodgers was also shot by the ghostly assailant. He was hit in the back hard enough to knock him off his feet. The projectile responsible was found a few moments later–it was a blue marble–but the shooter was nowhere to be found.

After these first strange occurrences, reports of the ‘phantom sniper’ began to flood into Camden police stations. Reports of similar attacks came in from Collingswood and Lindenwood, New Jersey as well. Police suspected the culprit or culprits might be using a high-powered air gun or a low-caliber hand gun with a silencer, or some combination of the two. In later incidents bullets were found, one matching a .38 slug and the other a .22. In another case, the Ghost Sniper shot nickel-plated screw a through the windshield of a car owned by a prominent local jeweler, which was promptly recovered.

Perhaps the strangest feature of the case was that witnesses present at most of the incidents never reported hearing a gun go off. The only victim who claimed to hear anything was when Former State Senator Albert S. Woodruff reported being fired upon from a car he was following across the Federal Street Bridge. There was only one case where a possible shooter was identified; he’d shot through a bedroom window, and when the occupants looked outside to see where the projectile had come from, they saw a man running a away shouting: “It’s all right now, Louie.” The mystery man was never caught.

Luckily, no one was seriously injured throughout the ordeal, other than some severe cases of jangled nerves and a couple of officers who suffered nasty bruises after being struck by blue marbles. That is not to say that Camden and the surrounding area were not in a borderline panic over the ‘phantom shooter’ though. Police outfitted themselves with tommy guns and pursuit vehicles to aid in the hunt for the shooter, and throughout the course of the investigation they operated under a “shoot on sight” order. People were genuinely terrified of the Ghost Sniper, and with good reason; after all, since no one could catch him, what was to stop him from shooting to kill?


Two arrests, but were they really the culprits?

An illustration of the London Monster, who haunted the streets of London in the 1790s.

An illustration of the London Monster, who haunted the streets of London in the 1790s.

The strange story concluded when police arrested two youths for shooting a hole in a windshield with a slingshot. After the arrests, no more incidents were reported. The story is quite similar to that of the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, where a mysterious gas-wielding assailant allegedly assaulted the people of the sleepy Illinois town. No culprit was ever found, and the whole incident was chalked up by authorities as an outbreak of mass hysteria (it has, in fact, become a textbook case.) The situation in Camden was slightly different, as there were no physical symptoms associated with the panic like in the Mad Gasser case. So it technically wasn’t mass hysteria, but rather a case of mass delusion, where a false believe spreads like wild fire throughout a community, such as during the case of the London Monster.

More likely than not, at least some of the incidents were real. For example, Officer Rodgers was struck by some object; it remains to be seen, however, whether or not it was the marble he found nearby. The newspaper report on the case, especially since it involved a public official being attacked, primed the rest of the community to believe they could be attacked too. Every pebble shot through a window by a passing car and every prank by bored school boys became a sign of a mad man on the loose. The panicked mood might have caused pranksters to come out of the woodwork and stoke the flames. As time passed,  the panic eventually peaked. By the time the two youths were arrested, interest in the whole business had waned anyway. The arrests closed the case in most people’s minds.  The term “Ghost Sniper” was an ideal one, because he only existed in the minds of the people of Camden.



Cohen, Phil. “Camden, New Jersey: The ‘Ghost Sniper.'” dvrbs.com. May 6, 2005. DVRBS, Inc. March 17, 2014. <http://www.dvrbs.com/camden/CamdenNJ-TheGhostSniper.htm>

The London Monster

Illustration of the London Monster attacking a woman. It was based on witness testimony, but produced before Williams was arrested.

Illustration of the London Monster attacking a woman. It was based on witness testimony, but produced before Williams was arrested.

Humans have always believed in monsters. Our ancient ancestors told tales of giants, dragons, and less classifiable things lurking in the impenetrable darkness of the night. While the march of progress has shown these stories to be nothing more than collective nightmares, now and then real-life monsters rear their all too human heads. It turns out that the real monsters–with a few exceptions–take human form. From Delphine LaLaurie’s attic of horrors to the castle of the Blood Countess, tales of human savagery litter the historical record. Even today we are not clear on what goes wrong in a person’s mind to make them turn monstrous, although many have turned down dark pathways in an effort to figure out why. Some folks are just broken, and nobody can figure out how to fix them.

One such monstrous figure stalked the streets of London in 1790. Dozens of women reported being attacked by a boisterous, lewd man who slashed at their clothing and stabbed their buttocks with a dagger. Panic quickly spread through the city as citizens and police alike tried to track down the mysterious figure who came to be dubbed “The London Monster.”


The Monster’s first strike

The Monster’s first reported attack occurred January 19, 1790, on the Queen’s birthday. The Porter sisters–Sarah and Anne–were on their way home to their fathers hotel after enjoying the festivities when a strange fellow approached. He stared intently at Sarah before saying “Oh ho! Is that you?” and hitting her on the back of the head. Confused by the unprovoked assault, she ran toward her sister and the chaperone–Mrs. Miel– escorting the pair. The group hurried toward the  hotel, but the man was not following. He appeared again when they were pounding on the hotel door. He stabbed Anne on the hip. He then left while the frantic women tried to raise the attention of those inside, but soon returned. He stared at the women, a grin on his lips. John Porter, their brother, let the group inside. He was the first to see the blood on Anne’s dress. He summoned servants to search for the attacker, but the mysterious assailant disappeared.

That night, four other women would reportedly be attacked by the strange grinning man. The Monster established his modus operandi that night. He approached pretty, well-dressed women, usually coming uncomfortably close. He spoke to them in a crude manner, making vulgar sexual comments and foul language. If they tried to walk away, he would pursue them, often for a good distance. Then he would stab them in the hips or thighs using a sharp instrument before running away.

While this constituted most of the Monster attacks, the mysterious pervert slightly modified his approach in later cases. Some women reported being approached by a man who asked them to smell an artificial nosegay. When they did so, he stabbed them in the face with an object concealed within the flower before running away.


A phantom with many faces

As reports of attacks flooded in after the initial spate on January 19, many different descriptions of the alleged assailant were given by his victims. Mrs. Mary Smyth, who was attacked two years before the Porter sisters, making her the first victim of the Monster, claimed her attacker was a “villanous” looking man with a narrow face. Another woman reported the attacker was a small, thin, big nosed man. A little less than a year before the Porter sisters were attacked, Mrs. Sarah Godfrey was attacked by a man of medium build wearing a good black suit. Miss Mary Forster was accosted six months later by a slender man with regular features and a big nose. Still another victim described her attacker as a six foot tall man with pale skin and sallow features. Investigators–both the professionals and vigilantes who later took to the streets–believed the Monster was a rich man who used disguises to commit his crimes, thus accounting for the varying appearance.

It seemed the Monster could be anyone. Panic was growing on the streets of London. By early April 1790, the incidents had attracted the attention of a Lloyd’s Insurance broker named John Julius Angerstein. He took it upon himself to interview victims. He found that there had been 30 attacks between May 1788 and April 1790. Eager to do his part to stop the scourge of the Monster, Angerstein and some associates pooled their money for a reward: 50 pounds for information that led to the arrest of the Monster, or for the capture of the Monster himself, and another 50 pounds if the culprit was convicted. The group plastered posters around the city advertising the reward. The already bewildered police were flooded with tipsters and men hauling in folks they thought were the culprit.



Pickpocket caught in the act. Pickpockets took advantage of the panic to ply their trade.

Pickpocket caught in the act. Pickpockets took advantage of the panic to ply their trade.

The Monster hunters taking to the street in search of reward didn’t seem to deter the London Monster, who continued to wage his campaign of terror against the female citizens of London. He began to prey on more homely ladies during that time. Panic grew into a flat out mania. Women were terrified to leave their homes, especially at night. Rich women began wearing copper cuirasses over their rear ends, while the less well off had to settle for girding their loins with copper cook pots. Men roved the streets, searching for the Monster and beating any man suspected of being the phantom assailant. Enterprising pick pockets took advantage of the hysterical climate. They would burgle an unsuspecting fellow, then denounce him as the Monster and run off while the mob descended. Others named their enemies the Monster and watched with satisfaction as the mob beat the tar out of the unfortunate.

With hysteria in the packed London streets, police had to act fast before they had a full scale riot on their hands. They snapped up a Welsh artificial flower maker named Rhynwick Williams, arresting him on suspicion of being the Monster. He was an average looking fellow who wasn’t very well educated. Four Monster victims could not identify him in the pre-trial hearing. In addition, his coworkers at the flower factory vouched for him, telling the judge that he was at work when the Porter sisters were attacked. No fewer than thirteen character witnesses came forward and vouched for Williams, telling the court he was a good man. Despite all this, Williams was found guilty on the testimony of the Porter sisters.

Strangely, Williams was not found guilty of assault. Cutting a person with intent to kill was considered a misdemeanor at the time, punishable by fines, prison time, or flogging. Prosecutors went for a felony charge–punishable by death or transportation to Australia–of cutting clothes. Yes, it turned out that in late 18th century London, cutting clothes was a worse crime than cutting flesh. The statute was instituted when weavers, who were angry over the import of cheap Indian fabrics, attacked anyone wearing clothes made from the foreign material. Under this statute, Williams was sentenced to 7 years transportation.

Theophilus Swift, relative of the great satirist and novelist Johnathon Swift, heard about the results of the charges and believed a great injustice had been done to Williams. He offered his assistance to the hapless Welshman, and managed to bluster his way to a second trial. During the trial, Swift contended that the Porter sister’s were using the courts to get revenge on Williams. He had approached Anne, and become angry when she rejected him. He insulted her about a past indiscretion with a mysterious figure named Captain Crowder. Swift also alleged that Porter was angling to get the reward money, since she’d married the man who captured Williams and netted the reward money.  Furthermore, Swift argued that there had been two more Monster-style attacks while Williams was in prison, so it couldn’t have been his client who did the original crimes. In addition, women were coming forward claiming that they had faked their injuries in order to garner attention as victims of the Monster, casting suspicion on all of the victim’s accounts by association.

These arguments–and the pamphlets Swift published which trumpeted them to the public at large–were enough to cast doubt on the proceedings of the first trial. The felony charge against Williams was dropped, and he was charged with the lesser misdemeanor of cutting with the intent to kill. He was sentenced to two years of prison time for each offense, totaling six years. Williams served out his sentence, married and fathered a children, and basically dropped out of the historical record at that point.


A monstrous delusion?

London was a rough and tumble city during the late 18th century. The population had swelled to about a million, and more people meant more of the problems that plagued any large city, especially crime. The odds of someone falling victim to the swarms of footpads, pickpockets, and other nasty sorts were pretty good. So it wasn’t much of a leap for the city’s residents to believe that a monstrous madman might be on the loose among them.

They certainly did believe it, but that doesn’t mean that the London Monster actually did exist. What seems likely given the evidence–the varying descriptions of the attacker, the relatively minor wounds, the faking of wounds for attention, the fact that most victims were female–is that the London Monster was a type of mass sociogenic illness called a collective delusion. The term “delusion” in this sense does not mean that the victims were psychotic and hallucinating. In this usage, it simply means that a false belief spread through the population. There is no doubt that at least some of the women were actually victims of assault; it’s inevitable, considering that so many crimes were being committed daily in the London streets. But these assaults came to be lumped together as the actions of one attacker, rather than the random acts of anonymous hoodlums. The London Monster put a face on the problems plaguing the city; crime, overcrowding, and the low status of women in British society at the time. By putting a face on abstract issues, it gave people a way that they could act on these unconscious stresses and anxieties. It wound up that poor Rhynwick Williams was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He became a scape-goat, bearing the burdens of societal sin so that the larger community could believe justice had been done.



Bondeson, Jan. “The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale.” Da Capo Press, July 2009





Delphine LaLaurie — The Murderous Mistress

The LaLaurie Mansion, from a 1906 postcard.

The LaLaurie Mansion, from a 1906 postcard.

More often than not, when you hear the word “serial killer” you think of a man, since the vast majority of serial killers are, indeed, men. However, the fairer sex is not immune from murderous instincts; in fact, some of the most notorious serial killers in history were women. Among their number is the wealthy New Orleans socialite Marie Delphine LaLaurie, better known as Madam LaLaurie, whose mansion has gone down in the eccentric history of New Orleans as a house of horrors.


A cruel mistress.

On April 10, 1834 a fire broke out in her mansion. While neighbors and firefighters struggled to put out the flames, LaLaurie herself went about the mansion trying to save her valuables. Rescuers began to question where all the household slaves were, and why they weren’t helping to fight the fire. I also imagine they were curious as to why an elderly slave was chained to the stove.

Rumors had abounded before the fire of LaLaurie’s alleged cruelty towards her slaves. Certainly slavery itself was a cruel institution, but slave holders were expected to treat their slaves with some minimum degree of humanity. This evidently didn’t exclude slave holders from using whips and chains to discipline their slaves, so to be considered “cruel” back then meant very much going above and beyond.

Said rumors were probably in the back of the rescuer’s minds as they put out the fire. They headed up the stairs toward the attic, guided by the words of the elderly kitchen slave who had told them about her fellow slaves who were sent to the attic, never to return. Some believe the slave set the fire in the kitchen herself to try to draw attention from the outside world to Madam LaLaurie’s cruelty. If that was her intention, the plan worked.


House of horrors

Rescuers broke down the attic door and found a scene straight out of the worst modern day horror movies. Accounts vary, and many are more folklore than fact, but regardless what was inside was terrible enough to make hardened firefighters become sick to their stomachs. Slaves were bound in chains to the wall, with collars around their throats. Some were locked in dog cages. All of them showed signs of starvation and maltreatment, and some were horribly mutilated. One man had had his genitals removed in a crude sex change operation. One woman’s limbs had been broken at the joints which were then reset at odd angles, resulting in a crab-like appearance. Another woman’s limbs had been removed and strips of her flesh had been stripped away in sort of a striped pattern. A man had been vivisected (autopsied while alive) and lay on the makeshift operating table with his organs exposed. Buckets of organs and blood were scattered all over the room.

Now I should mention that descriptions these rather more horrific and specific tortures came later, as near as I can tell. They may not have (and hopefully didn’t) occur. Legends have a way of taking on a life of their own, facts be damned. Regardless, the fact seems to stand that Madam LaLaurie and her husband committed atrocities against their slaves that were shocking even to the culture of the day that regarded them as nothing more than property.

Not long after the discovery, Madam LaLaurie was forced to flee her home as an armed lynch mob attacked the mansion when word spread of the attic room and its grisly contents. LaLaurie and her husband fled in a carriage and escaped to Paris, France. On December 7, 1842 Madam LaLaurie died in Paris, allegedly of wounds sustained during a boar hunt. She was never punished for her crimes.



“Delphine LaLaurie.” Wikipedia.org. May 12, 2014. Wikipedia. May 18, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphine_LaLaurie

“A torture chamber is uncovered by arson.” 2014. The History Channel website. May 18 2014, 12:14 http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/a-torture-chamber-is-uncovered-by-arson.

“History of Delphine LaLaurie.” Nola.com. http://www.nola.com/lalaurie/history/intro.html

The Phantom Barber of Pascagoula

Welders who worked the shipyards building warships that would help the US win the war.

Welders who worked the Pascagoula shipyards building warships that would help the US win the war.

History is peppered with strange accounts of phantom attackers. These mystery assailants attack, stir up a massive panic, and then disappear as mysteriously as they come. Many, like the legendary Spring-Heeled Jack, are clearly more fiction than fact, but now and then an outbreak of strange behavior is rooted in genuine criminal activity. The panic surrounding the London Monster, for example, likely grew out of legitimate attacks on women in 18th century London streets.

A phantom attacker similar to the London Monster stalked the streets of Pascagoula, Misssippi during World War II, preying on women and girls. His particular perversion involved cutting hair, leading locals to dub him The Phantom Barber of Pascagoula.


A mysterious assailant

The year was 1942. America was at war. As her men and boys went off to fight in foreign fields, her towns geared themselves up to produce the materiel the troops would need to win the war. The small town of Pascagoula was no exception. Indeed, the war was a boom time for the town–its population increased by 15,000 in just two years. Pascagoula was involved in the manufacture of war ships, a crucial industry for a nation involved in a war on two oceans.

However, the influx of so many people into what was once such a small town lead to tensions. It was the perfect recipe for a panic, what with the social upheaval and the specter of warfare hanging overhead. Soon enough, there was indeed a panic, one that seems similar in many ways to the Mad Gasser of Mattoon episode, which has become a textbook case of mass hysteria.

The attacks began in early June 1942, when the Phantom Barber cut the hair of Mary Evelyn Briggs and Edna Marie Hydel in their bedroom at the convent of Our Lady of Victories. By the end of that week, three people received unwanted hair cuts at the shears of the Phantom Barber. None saw their attacker. The town was understandably in a panic. It got to the point where the Army even modified its blackout regulations (blackouts were procedures to defend against air raids) in order to help police hunt the Barber. The Phantom Barber primarily struck on Monday and Friday evenings, and entered through a slit in window screens.


The Phantom Barber strikes again

A week after the first attack, the Phantom Barber struck the home of David G. Peattie, shearing his daughter Carol’s hair. The parents found a bare footprint near the window. The following Friday, the attacks became violent: the Phantom allegedly entered the house of Mr. and Mrs. ST Heidelberg, and proceeded to beat them with an iron bar. The final attack happened on a Sunday, two weeks later. The Phantom clipped a two inch lock of hair from the head of Mrs. RR Taylor. Mrs. Taylor reported a sickening smell and something being pressed to her face, which authorities assumed to be a chloroform rag. All told, about ten homes were broken into during the Phantom Barber’s reign of terror.

In August, the police apprehended a suspect that they concluded was the Phantom Barber. His name was William Dolan, a 57 year old German chemist with reported German sympathies and a grudge against the Heidelbergs. Mr. Heidelberg’s father was a local judge who had refused to lower Dolan’s bail on a trespassing charge several months before. Dolan was charged with the attempted murder of the Heidelbergs, but curiously he was never charged with one of the Phantom Barber attacks, despite the FBI finding a bundle of human hair behind his house, some of which belonged to Carol Peattrie, who you will remember was the Barber’s fourth victim. Dolan denied being the Phantom Barber. He received ten years for the attempted murder charge. After his arrest, the Phantom Barber attacks ceased.

It isn’t clear whether Dolan really was the Barber though. His attack was uncharacteristically violent compared to the Barber’s attacks. It could be argued that the Barber attacks were practice runs leading up to the assault on the Heidelberg’s, but if that were the case, why do another Barber-style attack after the Heidelberg assault? Also, if they were practice runs, why cut hair? It sounds like something sexually motivated, a hair fetish perhaps.  If that were the case and Dolan were the assailant, why keep his prizes in the back yard? Also, it doesn’t seem that the footprint in Carol Peattrie’s room was ever analyzed, a definite oversight on the part of the police.

As is often happens, there are no definitive answers in this case. It is certainly possible that a pervert with a hair fetish was stalking the streets of Pascagoula. Whether that pervert was William Dolan, or another man who decided to book it out of town once authorities snapped up Dolan and his name was linked to the attacks, remains unknown. The identity of the Phantom Barber of Pascagoula will remain a mystery.



Pajimans, Theo. “The Phantom Barber of Pascagoula.” ForteanTimes.com. November 2009. Fortean Times. March 17, 2014 <http://www.forteantimes.com/features/articles/2416/blasts_from_the_past_the_news_that_time_forgot.html>

The Fashion Faux Pas That Started a Riot: The Straw Hat Riot of 1922


Source: National Endowment for the Humanities

Fashions change all the time. From the dapper charcoal grey suits and ties of the fifties and sixties to the pastel monstrosities known as leisure suits in the seventies to today’s hoody and pajama pants ensemble, the clothing people cover their nakedness with have evolved quite a bit over the past hundred years or so.

One thing, however, hasn’t changed: committing a fashion faux pas puts one at risk of ridicule and, as we will see, violence. These days the fashion police content themselves with taking online pot shots at the less trendy among us. People of Walmart, for example, is devoted to putting the questionable clothing choices of Wal-Mart shoppers (among other things) up for public mockery.

However, it is rare these days for poor style choices to result in physical assault. And it is unheard of for a fashion faux pas to spark a riot. That wasn’t the case in the early 1900s.


No straw hats after September 15 (for some reason)

Hats were, until the last thirty years or so, staples of a man’s wardrobe. From bowler derbies to pork pies to the iconic fedoras, most men would not be caught dead outside without their lid. And like every other article of clothing, there was an etiquette to wearing them. The rule of thumb for hats was that no man should wear a straw hat after September 15. It isn’t exactly clear why the 15th was chosen; Labor Day would have made more sense, since it is traditionally considered the last day of summer. But, regardless, the day to switch from straw hats to felt was the 15th, and the date was enforced with violence. It was a bit of a game for young men to knock offender’s hats off and stomp them in the street. This activity was chalked up to youthful indiscretion considered mostly harmless. However, in New York in 1922, the harmless pranks got out of hand.


Fashionable violence

straw riot headlineThe trouble began on September 13, 1922, which you will note is two days before the traditional transition date. A group of youths decided to start the fun early, and did so by knocking hats off factory worker’s heads in the Mulberry Bend area of Manhattan. After stomping those hats into the street, the groups moved on to the docks. But the dockworkers weren’t going to have any of the youthful shenanigans, and fought back. The fight got ugly, and escalated to the point that it blocked the Manhattan Bridge. Police broke up the melee, but that wasn’t the end of the rioting.

The next night, the youths took to the streets in force, armed with sticks. They broke off into groups and assaulted straw hat wearers who resisted having their hats stomped. Some reports indicate that the youths would form parallel lines in the street and force their victims to run the gauntlet. One man reported that his assailants joined a mob of a thousand youngsters on Amsterdam Avenue. Several men wound up hospitalized in the violence. Also, hat shops in the area were slammed with angry, bare-headed men looking to replace their smashed hats.

Police response to the violence was slow, but that didn’t mean that some officers weren’t swept up in the frenzy. Some plain clothes officers were attacked in the fracas.  One police sergeant was assaulted and, when he attempted to catch the culprits, a prankster stuck out his foot and the sergeant found himself in a gutter.

Eventually, though, the riot calmed down. Several rioters paid fines, and a few did jail time. Several people were injured, but luckily no one was killed. The streets of Manhattan were littered with the ruined remains of smashed straw hats

While the Straw Hat Riot of 1922 wasn’t the last of such events, it was certainly the largest. The tradition went on sporadically until the arbitrary transition between felt and straw fell out of fashion, leaving behind this odd footnote in criminal history.



“Straw Hat Riot.” Wikipedia.org. 10 January 2014. Wikipedia. 16 Jan 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_Hat_Riot>

“Straw Hat Riots Embroil East Side.” NYTimes.com. 14 September 1922. The New York Times. 16 Jan 2014. Retrieved from: <http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F30C13F73B5D1A7A93C6A81782D85F468285F9>

Peters, Justin. “The 1922 Straw Hat Riot Was One of the Weirdest Crime Sprees in American History.” Slate.com. 3 April 2013. Slate. 16 Jan 2014. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/crime/2013/04/03/straw_hat_riot_remembering_one_of_the_weirdest_crime_sprees_in_american.html>

The Associated Press. “Straw Hat Riots Keeps N.Y.’s Finest Chasing Hoodlums.” The Deseret News. 14 September 1922. Retrieved from: <http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=OaoxAAAAIBAJ&sjid=bNwFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5556,1489569&dq=straw-hat+riot&hl=en>

“The Straw Hat Riots.” The Pittsburgh Press. 15 September 1910. Retrieved from: <http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=sg0bAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4EgEAAAAIBAJ&pg=1666,3136231&dq=straw-hat+riot&hl=en>