Friday, November 21, 2014

Ballerinas On Fire (1861)

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 28, 1861
Philadelphia's Continental Theater on Walnut Street was the site of a handful of deadly fires in the late 1800s, the first of these tragedies being the subject of this entry. At least eight, but possibly nine ballerinas perished in an inferno ignited after one of the dancer's gauzy green costumes came into contact with flames from a gas tube backstage.

A crowd of fifteen hundred watched William Wheatley's production of the first act of The Tempest on the evening of September 14, 1861. The show was interrupted by strange lights from behind the scenery, followed shortly by screams, stage carpenters rushing onto the platform and the appearance of a young dancer engulfed in flames. This dancer, Zelia Gale, screamed and waved her arms frantically as her costume and skin melted away. She finally fell beneath the stage where a carpenter covered her in a sea cloth from the set design.

As the curtains dropped the screams of other dancers backstage became more audible. Initially the manager tried to calm the crowd but when the magnitude of the situation became clear he told them that the show would not continue and evacuated the building. Meanwhile, a horrific and chaotic scene continued in the dressing room part of the theater.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Death Prophecy Fulfilled, Complete with a Partridge's Warning

On a Sunday afternoon in November 1883, fifty-six year old Lafayette Cook of Auburn, Maine went for a sprightly stroll with his grandchildren. Afterwards he declared that he was going to prepare himself  for the coffin by shaving and putting on a fresh set of clothing. His family didn't think much of his preoccupation with his death at the time. That morning after breakfast he proclaimed, "I shall never eat another breakfast with you." Lafayette, a Spiritualist, had a reputation for being eccentric and just two weeks prior he predicted the date of his death, which was upon him. Cook had no serious health problems and in the time since he'd made it known that he was soon to die he seemed in good spirits, possibly even more chipper and congenial than usual. He even continued to sew overalls from home for a local company until about a week before he died. He called upon a neighbor to collect an order of overalls for delivery. He told the neighbor not to bring him additional sewing and added, "I have done all the work I shall ever do."

From the Daily Dispatch on November 16, 1883: "He said he wanted no harrowing death-bed scene and no demonstration of grief. He called for a spread, and lying carefully upon  a lounge he drew a comforter about him and apparently settled himself for a nap. His wife and family gathered about him, but he made no formal farewell, simply bidding them all good-bye. They were impressed by his gentle earnestness, but had no real though of his dying.

The Daily Dispatch 16 November 1883
     Mr. Cook lay with his cheek resting in one had and with the other arm by his side. In that position he seemed to fall asleep. They watched over him, as he seemed to be quietly dreaming. They saw no change. At tea-time they tried to wake him. He was breathing softly, but they could not rouse him. Then they became alarmed and used more vigorous efforts to awaken the unconscious man. Nothing would bring a sign of returning consciousness. He sank into a deeper stupor, his breath coming shorter and slower. They worked over him all night, and a physician was called in, but it availed nothing. Early yesterday morning all signs of life disappeared, and the strange man was dead on the day he appointed for taking off. He made no movement after he first closed his eyes."

The above article was my first acquaintance with Mr. Cook and after reading it, my initial thoughts were that either this was one eerie coincidence or that he had actually committed suicide despite the family's idea that he hadn't ingested any drugs.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Nellie Bly: Playing Mad Woman

This week Comedy Central's Drunk History aired a brief segment about Nellie Bly's 1887 exposé on the treatment of female patients at Blackwell's Island, a New York lunatic asylum. The journalist faked mental illness and was admitted to the hospital on assignment from Joseph Pulitzer of The New York World. The result of Nellie's ten-day stay in the system attracted attention to overcrowded, diseased conditions in the hospital and called into question whether or not its doctors were qualified to determine a sane person from someone actually suffering from mental illness.

One of the lengthier articles I  found about Nellie "Brown's" institutionalization at Blackwell's Island was printed in The Sun on October 14, 1887. "Playing Mad Woman" ran after the original piece in the World, which you can find at NYU's digital library. You can also download Nellie's account of the asylum experience in  "Ten Days in a Mad-House" at Nellie Bly Online.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Hoodoo and a Washington Mansion's Haunted Roof

Researching haunted houses recently I stumbled upon an intriguing headline in the Sept. 29, 1912 issue of The Salt Lake Tribune. The story included all the ingredients for a superstitious and spectral feast: an heiress heeding a witch's warning, a young woman's suicide, a parade of spirits, and the haunted roof that served as a conduit to the other side.

After more research, I found out that many of the background details printed in The Tribune were factual. As for the spirits that allegedly haunted the dwelling...well, you have to draw your own conclusions about that.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Curious Adornments: Suicide Bracelets and Rings for Poison, Prevention, or Protection

Here are a few pieces from my collection of unusual jewelry-related articles. I think my favorite headline here is, "Women Wear Poison Rings: Jewelry of Days When Murder Was Fashionable the Fad." I'd never murder anyone, but I would love to own a poison ring. (I really wanted to write, "I'd kill for a poison ring, but that would've been too much, wouldn't it?)


 from The Washington Times 12 December  1920