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Saturday, December 13, 2014

A Strange Series of Shipwrecks

The most bizarre chain of maritime accidents in history

The sinking of the Governor Ready

Some argue that there's no such thing as bad luck. However, if you were a sailor in 1829 you probably would think otherwise: For that year marked the beginning of an uncanny series of shipwrecks that defies logic and explanation.

The strange story begins in October of 1829, when the English merchant ship Mermaid was driven on the rocks of the Torres Strait, between Papau New Guinea and Australia. The ship was dashed to pieces, and the crew clung to the shattered remains for dear life. After hours adrift in the water the fragments of the Mermaid began to sink one by one, and just when it appeared that all hope of survival was lost, a passing frigate named Swiftsure rescued the crew.

The Swiftsure resumed her northward course, only to be foundered in a horrible gale three days later. Luckily, a warship by the name of Governor Ready, en route to India, caught sight of the foundering frigate and saved the combined crews of the Mermaid and Swiftsure. And if you guessed that this ship would also meet a similar fate, well, you are correct: The Governor Ready encountered a fierce storm and was driven miles off its course. It ran ashore on the barren coast of an uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean and its crew (now comprised of men from the Mermaid, Swiftsure and Governor Ready) managed to make it onto the island without a single casualty.

After being stranded on the island for a week, the castaways were rescued by a cutter named Comet, which soon sprang a leak and sank slowly a few days later. As luck would have it, a rescue ship was nearby; the four crews were saved by the Jupiter. And, as luck would also have it, the Jupiter foundered just as she was entering the harbor of Port Raffle. All of the men were rescued by a boat dispatched from the harbor.

Thus, the crew of the Mermaid endured five wrecks in a single voyage, the crew of the Swiftsure endured four, the crew of the Governor Ready three, and the Comet twice. But perhaps the most incredible part of this story is that not a single crewman lost his life during this bizarre string of misfortunes.

Source: The Princeton (Minnesota) Union, May 17, 1906

Sunday, December 7, 2014

An Abortionist's Graveyard

JOTB goes on the trail for clues to a 123-year-old unsolved mystery

Bridge over the Passaic connecting Harrison and Newark

On a sunny April day in 1881, two young boys were playing in the meadow not far from the Pennsylvania Railroad depot in the bustling Newark suburb of Harrison. Their minds filled with thoughts of pirate treasure, they dug hole after hole in the meadow. The discovery they soon made, however, turned their expressions from excitement to horror. They unearthed six glass jars, covered in mud. When they brushed away the mud the boys discovered that the jars didn't contain gold or silver coins-- but the preserved remains of fully-developed infants. Upon further investigating, thee more jars were found in the vicinity, bringing the total to nine. The boys had come to the meadow seeking buried treasure, but had instead found an abortionist's graveyard.

Abortion was a bustling business in Newark in the latter decades of the 19th century. Though highly illegal, it was a lucrative enterprise, and dozens of otherwise reputable physicians placed their careers on the line in the pursuit of quick wealth and a seemingly endless stream of new customers. Just four months before the jars of dead infants were discovered near the present-day site of the Red Bull Arena, a Newark doctor named H.W. Geddicke got ten years in prison and a $200 fine just for attempting to perform an abortion. Yet, in spite of harsh sentences, the abortion business continued to thrive, and dozens of secret "abortion dens" sprang up throughout Newark, Jersey City, and surrounding areas comprising New Jersey's "Gateway Region".

Who was responsible for the graveyard in the meadow? This remains one of New Jersey's lesser known unsolved mysteries, but a fascinating one nonetheless. Old newspaper accounts provide us with the names and details of some of Newark's most notorious abortionists, who may or may not have been the culprits. Perhaps somebody reading this article holds the missing clues that may solve this 123-year-old mystery.

Ida Vail and the Clairvoyant Candy Shop Abortionist

Jersey City, located about seven miles from Harrison, served as a backdrop for one of the Gateway Region's most appalling and bizarre abortion trials. The year was 1873 when a Jersey City undertaker named Plaget was preparing the body of a pretty 19-year-old girl for burial. Plaget sensed that there was something suspicious about the girl's death, and something even more suspicious about the property to where he had been summoned, at 54 Erie Street.

The property was a boarding house, owned by a woman named Marcella Metzler and her son, Frederick. It was a two story house, with an innocent-looking candy store occupying the front. In one of the windows was displayed a sign advertising the services of Madame Marcella, Clairvoyant.  Plaget found the girl's body on a filthy bed in a filthy room on the second floor and notified Dr. Buck, the county medical examiner. Dr. Buck, along with two other physicians, removed the body to Mr. Plaget's undertaking establishment for a post-mortem examination. They concluded that the girl, Ida Vail, had died as the result of a botched abortion.

Police staked out the candy store and soon nabbed the man who was later proven to be the person who delivered Ida to the clairvoyant, a middle-aged businessman from Newark named Alonzo E. Kimball. Kimball was a manager for the Domestic Sewing Machine Company, and Ida Vail was his newest employee. "I am ruined!" exclaimed Kimball as he was escorted to the police station.

Kimball told the police that he had no idea who the abortionist was because he or she wore a black mask throughout the procedure. Mrs. Metzler, the clairvoyant, denied having any involvement, but police later searched the property and found hundreds of pieces of evidence proving otherwise: receipts of money paid to Metzler, correspondence from doctors, and letters from dozens of individuals seeking abortion advice. Madame Metzler immediately fingered a local physicians named Dr. Cormus. Cormus, charged as an accomplice, was eventually acquitted but both Marcella Metzler and Alonzo Kimball were convicted.
Could it be possible that Marcella Metzler, the candy store clairvoyant who oversaw a thriving abortion den, was the person who buried the jars containing the bodies of nine infants in the meadow just seven miles away?

Medical Pioneer or Mad Scientist?

Let us now turn our attention to another suspect, Dr. Simon P. Taft, a practitioner of "eclectic medicine" from Newark who was hailed as a pioneer of medical science by his colleagues. But was Dr. Taft a true medical pioneer or a mad scientist? You decide.

Biographies of Taft, such as the ones that appeared in National Eclectic Medical Association periodicals, paint Simon as a self-made Renaissance Man, who rose to prominence after a difficult poor rural upbringing in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. However, Taft had not come from a poor family, as he so often claimed, but from prominent family which would produce 2 governors, 2 U.S. Senators, 2 U.S. Representatives, 2 Secretaries of War, an Attorney General, a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and one President of the United States. Simon's own father was a highly decorated military commander.

Simon began his career as a traditional physician before turning his attention to "eclectic medicine", a controversial branch of medicine which combined elements of homeopathy, Native American shamanism and even the occult. The movement spread like wildfire, as it was the era of frontier snakeoil salesmen and Spiritualism. Universities of eclectic medicine sprang up all over the country. Yet most Americans remained skeptical of this radical branch of medicine. Plagued by patients who had the unfortunate habit of dying under his care, Taft was forced to move his practice every few years. He operated out of Alton, Illinois in 1837. By 1839 he was practicing out of St. Louis, and thence to Whitehall, Illinois in 1841. Eight years later he returned to the East and made his home in Newark, which was becoming a national hub of eclectic medicine.

In Newark, Dr. Taft devoted a great deal of his time conducting experiments in electricity and psychic phenomena. Stated the National Eclectic Medical Association in 1892: He was also deeply interested in Psychical Research and was ahead of his times in his explorations in this field.

While records fail to describe the types of experiments he may have conducted, history tells us that contemporary psychical researchers often dabbled with hypnotism and drug-induced hallucinations. Taft was described as being "ahead of his time" in this field, which leaves plenty to the imagination. Taft was also an outspoken critic of traditional medicine, and published a book about the "Medical Plot", implying that establishment was out to get medical pioneers such as himself and other eclectic doctors.

Eventually, traditional medicine was able to squash the pseudo-scientific upstart of eclectic medicine. After the notorious Resurrection Riot in 1839, which centered on the practice of stealing freshly-buried corpses for medical research, the nation's leading eclectic medical college was evicted from Worthington, Ohio and forced to relocate in Cincinnati. One by one, these so-called medical schools began to close, and by 1910 only a handful remained. This was due in part to the Flexner Report of 1910, commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation, which called for medical schools to use evidence-based practices.

Taft's practice in Newark dried up by the 1870s and the esteemed medical "pioneer", now on the cusp of old age and financial ruin, turned his attention to performing illegal abortions. On July 26, 1872, Dr. Simon P. Taft was arrested in Newark as a result of an abortion that ended in the death of a young woman. Little is recorded of him until his death in 1889, when a lengthy obituary was published in the journal of the National Eclectic Medical Association. Not surprisingly, nothing was written about his involvement in the Newark abortion industry.

So who was responsible for the abortionist's graveyard?

While either Dr. Taft or Marcella Metzler would be prime suspects, the smart money is on Simon P. Taft. His practice was based at 28 Fulton Street in Newark, which sits virtually directly across the Passaic River from the site where the jars were discovered in 1881. One can easily imagine Dr. Taft, after being arrested in 1872, walking south a few blocks to the Newark station, getting on a train and crossing the river to the Harrison station, before burying the gruesome evidence of his misdeeds in the surrounding meadow.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Bilocation of Mary Renfrew

Bilocation is the supposed ability to appear in two places at the same time. Most frequently attributed to Christian saints, the power of bilocation was said to belong to individuals such as St. Anthony of Padua, St. Ambrose of Milan and, more recently, Padre Pio. Yet this strange phenomenon has been documented in virtually every time period, including the 20th century- as our following story indicates. It is the story of Mary Renfrew, a young girl whose very life was spared by this bizarre ability.

The morning of October 28, 1915, started out like any other Thursday in the city of Peabody, Massachusetts. Parents bundled their children in heavy jackets and scarves before sending them off to school. It was a frosty morning, but Mrs. Dorthea Renfrew wasn't worried about Mary; for it was a short walk, perhaps two or three blocks, from their Perkins Street home to St. John's Catholic School on Chestnut Street. Mrs. Renfrew, or "Dottie", as her friends called her, watched young Mary disappear from view before heading off to her job as a clerk in a bakery on Lowell Street.

No sooner had Dottie taken off her coat and took her place behind the glass case displaying loaves of freshly baked bread, she felt a strange compulsion to stand at the front door and press her nose to the window, and she was surprised to see a girl of about twelve running down the sidewalk. She was even more surprised to see that the girl was Mary, without her wool coat or scarf! Dottie was overcome with two emotions, and they were both the same; anger because Mary had played hooky from school, and anger because it was much too cold to be gallivanting around outside wearing just her parochial schoolgirl uniform.

"Mary Rose Renfrew!" shouted the mother from the doorway of the bakery. "You come here right this second!" When no answer came, Dottie ran to the end of the block and looked down Warren Street, then turned and looked down King. It was as if the girl had vanished into thin air. When Dottie returned to the bakery, the owner handed Dottie the telephone. "It's for you," said the old rosy-cheeked owner with her thick German accent. Dottie listened to the voice on the other end of the line for a moment, and then shouted, "It can't be! It just can't be!"

"What's the matter?" asked the owner of the bakery as Dottie returned to the counter, visibly shaken. Dottie explained that the call was from a family friend who lived across town. The gentleman, no stranger to the Renfrews, claimed that he had just seen a young girl running down Tremont Street who looked just like Mary Rose. She was wearing a St. John's school uniform.

This frightened Dottie to the point of exasperation; for she had just seen the girl not more than two minutes earlier. Even the faster sprinter in town couldn't cover a distance of ten city blocks in so short a period of time. She picked up the telephone and begged the operator to put her through to St. John's. Mother Superior Aldegon, who was in charge of the school, supplied Dottie with the most incredible news. "I was just getting ready to call you, Mrs. Renfrew," she said in astonishment. She explained that Mary Rose, just moments after entering the school, was overcome with a sudden illness and fainted just inside the doorway. A policeman, who always stood before the school to see that the children arrived safely, immediately transported Mary to the home of a physician a few blocks away. According to Mother Superior Aldegon, the policeman was currently on his way to the bakery to inform her of the news.

After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, Dottie asked the telephone operator to connect her with the police department. "I'm sorry, ma'am," explained the operator, "but we can't make the connection right now. We've been instructed to keep all of the lines open because of the emergency downtown."

"Emergency?" gasped Dottie. "What emergency?"

"Haven't you heard?" replied the operator. "There was an explosion at St. John's. The school is on fire. It's horrific, just horrific..." The line suddenly went dead and Dottie looked out the bakery window to see throngs of men and women running down the street in the direction of the school.

As the students began their morning prayers, a gas explosion in the basement of the school started the inferno that would claim the lives of 21 girls ranging in age from seven to seventeen. There were no fire escapes, thus there was no escape from the fire. Blinded by the thick smoke, six hundred children and teachers ran for the front door at once, causing it to jam. It was the same doorway where Mary had fainted not more than thirty minutes before. The fire broke through to the vestibule and within five minutes the entire building was engulfed in flames. When it was all over, Chief Canfield of the Salem Fire Department made an astounding discovery in the rear of the building; a huddled mass of tiny bodies, charred beyond recognition. Other bodies, trampled and broken, littered the hallways.

Mother Superior Aldegon, of the Sisters of Notre Dame, was hailed as a heroine on that fateful day. In spite of the chaos, she managed to save dozens of lives by lowering children out the third story window. Miraculously, none of nuns lost their lives. Mary Rose Renfrew, unconscious after striking her head as she fainted that morning, had been in bed at the home of a prominent local physician the entire time.

There's a bizarre footnote to this strange story, by the way.

The day before the St. John's school fire, the Washington Herald astrologer wrote the following horoscope, which was published twelve hours before the tragedy:

Fires in philanthropic institutions will cause loss of life. One that is most serious will take place in New England.

From the Washington Herald

But perhaps the most bizarre footnote is this: There was no telephone inside St. John's school. A telephone system would not be installed until the construction of a new school was completed a few years later. The call alerting the fire department was placed by an off duty fireman who happened, by sheer coincidence, to be walking past the school right as the explosion happened. Furthermore, Mother Superior Aldegon couldn't have spoken to Mrs. Renfrew because records indicate that, at that time Mrs. Renfrew placed her call, she was engaged in leading the fire drill.
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