“HOW DANGEROUS IS THE OUIJA BOARD?” and More True Macabre Stories! #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: Some believe the Ouija board is a harmless game – others feel it is a paranormal, evil portal to allow entry into our world of ghosts, dead relatives, and even demonic entities. How dangerous is the Ouija Board? (Ouija Board Dangers) *** On April 12th, 1961 the first man to ever make it into space was a Russian cosmonaut by the name of Yuri Gagarin. He is considered a hero to his country, and an inspiration worldwide to those who are fascinated by space travel. But what few do not know is that there is a theory that there was someone before Yuri Gagarin – and the story has been kept a secret. (The Cosmonaut Conspiracy) *** Apparently, if you want to have a satisfying life, it’s best to not have the name Elizabeth Brewer. I have two stories completely unrelated except that at the center of each sombre tale is a woman named Elizabeth Brewer. (Two Terrible Tales of Elizabeth Brewer)
SOURCES AND ESSENTIAL WEB LINKS…
“Is The Ouija Board Dangerous” (https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/2adx4nxx) and “Why You Should Avoid Contacting The Sinister Demon Zozo” https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/3cnmc9he) by Stephen Wagner; and “Who Invented The Ouija Board” (https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/v8xavm6h) by Mary Bellis — both for LiveAbout.com
“The Cosmonaut Conspiracy” by David Crookes from All About Space Magazine, posted at LiveScience.com: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/hn5m2r52
“Two Terrible Tales of Elizabeth Brewer” by William Ellis-Rees for London Overlooked:https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/kbxvw4a2, https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/5y7yukyk
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Welcome, Weirdos – I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness. Here you’ll find stories of the paranormal, supernatural, legends, lore, the strange and bizarre, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained.
Coming up in this episode…
On April 12th, 1961 the first man to ever make it into space was a Russian cosmonaut by the name of Yuri Gagarin. He is considered a hero to his country, and an inspiration worldwide to those who are fascinated by space travel. But what few do not know is that there is a theory that there was someone before Yuri Gagarin – and the story has been kept a secret. (The Cosmonaut Conspiracy)
Apparently, if you want to have a satisfying life, it’s best to not have the name Elizabeth Brewer. I have two stories completely unrelated except that at the center of each sombre tale is a woman named Elizabeth Brewer. (Two Terrible Tales of Elizabeth Brewer)
But first… Some believe the Ouija board is a harmless game – others feel it is a paranormal, evil portal to allow entry into our world of ghosts, dead relatives, and even demonic entities. How dangerous is the Ouija Board? (Ouija Board Dangers)
If you’re new here, welcome to the show! While you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com for merchandise, my newsletter, enter contests, to connect with me on social media, plus, you can visit the Hope in the Darkness page if you’re struggling with depression or dark thoughts. You can find all of that and more at WeirdDarkness.com.
And this month we’re celebrating Weird Darkness’ birthday… this month makes seven years of Weird Darkness as a podcast. And to recognize our birthday, every October we ask you to make a donation to our Overcoming The Darkness fundraiser. Every dollar we raise through donations and the Weirdling Woods painting auction will go to organizations that help people who struggle with depression. You can learn more about the fundraiser and what we’re doing with it on the Hope in the Darkness page at WeirdDarkness.com.
Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
STORY: OUIJA BOARD DANGERS==========
If you don’t know what a Ouija board is by now you obviously don’t follow spooky stuff, don’t believe in Halloween, don’t believe you can communicate with spirits, and don’t watch horror films. A Ouija Board is traditionally a wooden board decorated with the following characters:
- the numbers 0–9
- the 26 letters of the alphabet
- the words “yes” and “no”
- “goodbye” and sometimes “hello”
- and sometimes a few other symbols and graphics for decoration and/or spiritual meaning
Accompanying the board is a smaller heart-shaped piece of wood called the planchette. The purpose of the Ouija Board is to receive messages from angels, spirits, or dead relatives. Messages are received during a seance with one or more participants, usually more people makes for more fun (or trouble). All those participating place their fingers on the planchette, and the idea is that spiritual forces will move the planchette around the Ouija Board, the planchette will point to the various characters on the board, giving and spelling out messages from those spirits. You can consider Ouija Boards as fun toys, spiritual tools, or the devil’s handiwork – that choice is up to you. But speaking as your host of this podcast, you won’t find me playing with one in any way.
Oracles have been using divination and receiving messages from spirits through out human civilization. The use of a planchette type device can be traced back to the Chinese Song Dynasty circa 1100 AD. The Chinese scholars of the Quanzhen School practiced a form of automatic writing called fuji that involved using a planchette and contacting the spirit world. Scriptures of the Daozang are considered to be works of automatic planchette writing.
However, we can consider two men to be the modern inventors of the Ouija Board, who also were the first to mass manufacture and distribute commercial Ouija Boards. Businessman and attorney, Elijah Bond began selling Ouija Boards with planchettes on July 1, 1890 as novelty entertainment items.
U.S. Patent number 446,054 was granted to Elijah Bond on Feb. 10, 1891. However, in 1901 Elijah Bond sold his patent rights to the Ouija Board to his employee William Fuld, who continued to have the novelty item manufactured and sold.
William Fuld claimed that another former employer of his came up with the name during a Ouija board session and that it was Egyptian for “good luck.” Fuld changed that story later and claimed that “Ouija” was a combination of French and German for “yes.”
The term “Ouija” was trademark registered, however, because Ouija has been used so often, generically it now refers to any talking board.
Is the Ouija board dangerous? Most paranormal researchers advise against the casual use of the Ouija board, suggesting that it can be a doorway to unknown dimensions. Religious believers worry that it may result in a form of possession. Skeptics may dismiss the question, or suggest that you are either opening yourself to manipulation by other people or exaggerating the fears deep inside you.
“The board itself is not dangerous, but the form of communication that you are attempting often is,” says ghost researcher Dale Kaczmarek of the Ghost Research Society. “Most often the spirits whom are contacted through the Ouija are those whom reside on ‘the lower astral plane,'” Kaczmarek believes. “These spirits are often very confused and may have died a violent or sudden death; murder, suicide, etc. Therefore, many violent, negative and potentially dangerous conditions are present to those using the board. Often times several spirits will attempt to come through at the same time but the real danger lies when you ask for physical proof of their existence. You might say, ‘Well, if you’re really a spirit, then put out this light or move that object.’ What you have just done is simple, you have ‘opened a doorway’ and allowed them to enter into the physical world and future problems can and often do arise.”
People of many religious traditions advise against using the Ouija board because you are inviting voluntary possession by spirits or demons. Some Christian believers strongly object to using the Ouija board, believing it contacts demons or departed souls and is not an appropriate way to contact spiritual beings. Believers in other spiritual traditions caution that it’s pure chance which sort of entity you will contact and the results may be unpleasant.
But what if the Ouija does not really contact spirits? What if it only accesses your own subconscious? Some believe the Ouija reflects the state of mind of the people who are using it, if only on a subconscious level. If you’re frightened or nervous or even expecting something negative to happen, that’s very much what you might get. On the other hand, some people using it with a completely different attitude have had incredibly positive experiences.
- Begin by announcing that the session will only allow an experience that is positive or toward a higher good and that negative energies are not welcome. (As if a negative energy is going to listen to your request – I mean, they are “negative” after all.)
- Don’t ask for physical signs of a spirit’s presence.
- Don’t take the experience too lightly.
- When you’re done, close the board. This is an important step. When you’re done with your session, slide the planchette to “GOODBYE” and remove your hands.
Doing these things is for your own good – but even if you follow all the rules, you still risk something dangerous. One specific danger is encountering a demon named Zozo.
Zozo is one of the more prominent and well-known demonic beings. From reality television shows to literature, Zozo is commonly reported as being behind paranormal activity and hauntings.
No one knows what Zozo looks like or what type of being he is. But those who have come into contact with him report terrifying experiences. Most commonly contacted through a Ouija board, he seems to be a powerful demonic being with the potential to do significant physical and mental harm.
He sometimes goes by other names, such as Zaza, Zo, or infamously, Pazuzu. He has been around for hundreds of years.
While Zozo is most often connected with a Ouija board, it is possible that he can contact people outside the game as well, through other means. People have reportedly made contact with him during hypnosis, automatic writing sessions, and electronic voice phenomena (EVP).
Darren Evans, a man from Oklahoma, reportedly encountered Zozo while using a Ouija board with his girlfriend. The demon reportedly shared information with Evans from the other side, and he became obsessed with Ouija. But over time, Zozo became more sinister.
Evans eventually had a nervous breakdown, claiming that demons were following him. The demon even threatened Evan’s young daughter, saying he was going to steal her soul. She nearly died, and Evans realized he needed to take action. He pursued an exorcism to get Zozo away from his family, but it was a terrifying experience that left an impression. Evans now runs a site dedicated to warning people about the dangers of messing with Zozo.
- Rapid movements: If you are using an Ouija board, the planchette might begin moving rapidly. If you are undergoing hypnosis, the pendant or pendulum might begin to swing.
- Announcements: Zozo might announce himself by spelling out his name.
- Feelings of unease: You might feel a sudden weight of dread or unease descend upon you.
- Darkness: You might see shadows moving, or the room you are in might get darker.
- Remain calm: Demons and other evil spirits feed off fear, so take deep, calming breaths and steady yourself.
- Close the session: If you are playing Ouija, move the planchette to “goodbye” and formally close the game. If you are using another contact method, close it immediately.
- Do not speak his name: Using his name gives him power. Avoid speaking about him or to him.
- Seek help: If you feel you still have Zozo nearby, seek out help from a paranormal professional or a religious leader, such as a priest or rabbi.
On April 12th, 1961 the first man to ever make it into space was a Russian cosmonaut by the nam of Yuri Gagarin. He I considered a hero to his country, and inspiration worldwide to those who are fascinated by space travel. But what few do not know is that there is a theory that there was someone before Yuri Gagarin – and the story has been kept a secret. That story is up next on Weird Darkness.
STORY: THE COSMONAUT CONSPIRACY==========
Everybody knows that Neil Armstrong was the first person to set foot on the moon. Most are also aware that he wasn’t the first to go into space. After all, Alan Shepard paved the way for American astronauts on May 5, 1961, while Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin stole a march by rocketing into Earth orbit a few weeks earlier on April 12. Or did he?
Today Gagarin’s name is cemented in the record books, and he instantly became a national hero across the Soviet Union. Presented as a triumph of the fiercely fought Space Race against the U.S., the 27 year old, who had been chosen just three days before the mission, spent 108 minutes in space, orbited the Earth and returned fit and well following a drama-filled flight.
And yet, before he even embarked on his journey skywards, doubt was seeded in many a person’s mind. For rumors had surfaced that the Soviets had successfully launched a man into space before Gagarin set foot in Vostok 1, and the talk was that one cosmonaut had done so on April 7, just five days earlier.
Dennis Ogden, the Moscow-based correspondent for the British Communist Party newspaper, Daily Worker, reported as such, his story splashed across the publication’s front page with the headline: “The First Man In Space”. It informed readers that the spaceman — “the test-pilot son of a top-ranking aircraft designer” — was “back alive, but suffering from [the] effects of his flight”.
Gagarin’s feet hadn’t even left the ground when the paper hit the newsstands, and it caused something of a stir, sparking the first whispers of a conspiracy theory which has continued to this day. The Soviet Union denied the reports and instead alerted the press to Gagarin’s subsequent feat. Ogden also reported this, his article again making the splash as he wrote of a “hero’s welcome” and a Soviet Union “wild with joy at [the] first trip outside this world”.
Ogden’s article could have been seen as something akin to a correction; confirmation that he was initially wrong about the flight on April 7. But then French journalist Eduard Bobrovsky followed up on Ogden’s claims and pointed to the man in question as being an accomplished test pilot called Vladimir Ilyushin, while also stating the flight actually took place on March 25.
Trouble is, this mission had — according to the press sources — not gone quite as well as planned. That is why, it has long since been claimed, Ilyushin’s feat was cast aside in favor of Gagarin’s successful launch and landing.
Ilyushin was a Soviet general and a test pilot of high standing. He had broken many speed and altitude records and his father was influential, having designed and built Second World War fighters and bombers. Ilyushin senior had also earned himself a place in government. To that end, his son would have been seen as the perfect person to send into space, his penchant for risk-taking such that the then-34-year-old pilot would have surely relished the task.
And so the story went that his journey outwards on board his spaceship was fine but, after three supposed orbits, Ilyushin’s return went awry. Apparently, his landing was off-course, causing him physical harm and mental anguish. There was even a suggestion that the accident had put him into a coma.
“The space vessel reportedly was recovered where expected, but Ilyushin was mentally unbalanced and is unconscious in a Moscow hospital,” said a report in The Spokesman Review about the journalist’s claims on April 12, 1961. The article adds that Bobrovsky said his information came from reliable sources that he could not name and that Russian officers denied the report.
The Soviet Union claimed Ilyushin was in hospital being treated for injuries he had received in a car accident. The Soviets were not the only ones blinking with disbelief at this. Even the Americans did not believe the journalists’ claims. Indeed, Pierre Salinger, the press secretary to the White House at the time, told reporters that there was no evidence of a flight on April 7 and, we have to assume, nothing to have raised suspicion in March either. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) space tracking stations, it transpired, had not picked up on anything, and the U.S. was not about to leap in and heap embarrassment on the Soviet Union without proof.
And yet, even this wasn’t enough to completely quell suspicion. Some journalists believed the claims of a car crash were a mere cover story, and it certainly wasn’t beyond the wildest of imaginations to believe the Soviets would seek to bury a mistake since it had been done so many times in the past.
What’s more, in the framework of the Space Race, conspiracists could surmise there was a valid reason for trying to bury such a failure: the Soviets would constantly pull out all the stops to present communism as the superior ideology.
But is that, together with unknown journalistic sources, reason enough to believe that Gagarin’s place in history was not quite what it was? Ogden would later claim that he saw a photograph of Ilyushin wearing space gear at the time of the supposed flight, but it has never subsequently surfaced. Meanwhile, Ilyushin himself — who died in 2010, aged 82 — never confessed to having flown into space. He lived to tell the claimed tale, but notably did not.
What has been seen, however, are rumours continuing to swirl long after the event, and they’ve even been fleshed out. One of the most notable was a 52-minute documentary in 1999 called “The Cosmonaut Cover-Up“, released by Global Science Productions and directed by Elliott Haimoff who, in the following year, also helmed “Vladimir Ilyushin: The Real First Man in Space“.
Widely broadcast, it claimed Ilyushin had failed to eject from his capsule, crashed in China and, after being captured, was eventually handed back to the U.S.S.R. in 1962. The documentary makers said Ilyushin wouldn’t talk about the alleged incidents on camera, according to an article published on Sun Community News, and preferred to maintain his secrecy.
But was Ilyushin so fearful that, in verifying such claims, he would open himself up to a world in which he did not wish to boldly go? Given that the documentary was being made a number of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when secrets were finally being divulged and historical events were being flung open, many would suspect not.
In fact, the Soviets began to open up well before the U.S.S.R. ceased to be. In 1980 the West finally learned of the death of Valentin Bondarenko, who according to The New York Times, died ten days into a 15-day low-pressure endurance experiment in Moscow in 1961 when fire broke out — even though they had removed his image from an official subsequent training photograph.
It took longer to tell the world of a major launchpad accident that took place on Oct. 24, 1960, and officially killed 78, as eventually revealed to the rest of the world in 1989. There’s talk of Gagarin being used for propaganda, but of all the confessions and documents seen since the Soviet Union collapsed, Ilyushin has never featured.
And yet there have been some peculiar pieces of “evidence”. Two Italian former amateur radio operators, Achille and Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia, claimed to have recorded audio from an orbiting capsule in the days before Gagarin made his flight, and it was actually the fourth slice of startling audio released by the pair.
The first was from May 1960 of a manned spacecraft reportedly going off-course; the second in November that year of an SOS Morse code from a troubled spacecraft leaving Earth’s orbit and, most chillingly, a third in 1961 of a cosmonaut apparently suffocating to death. Should these be hard-and-fast evidence of spaceflights, then we would have to say that not only was Gagarin not the first person into space, Ilyushin was perhaps not first either. But given the supposition was that everyone involved in those three recordings had died, discovering the truth has been even more difficult. And yet theories still mount up.
What could be made of claims by Mikhail Rudenko, a former Soviet senior engineer and experimenter with Experimental Design Office 456, formed in 1999 by members of the editorial staff of the oldest Soviet paper Pravda, that cosmonauts had been sent into space in 1957, 1958 and 1959?
“All three pilots died during the flights and their names were never officially published,” he is quoted as saying in an article published on pravda.ru on April 12, 2001, having explained that the pilots involved were called Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov and took part in sub-orbital flights. “The cosmonauts were to reach space heights in the highest point of such an orbit and then return to the Earth,” he added. But considering Pravda has also run with headlines such as “Aliens forced Americans out from the Moon” and “Alien and human skulls found on Mars”, it’s a tough call.
Harder still to determine is Ilyushin’s location in March and April 1961. The Soviets didn’t help themselves in this regard either since they couldn’t give a straight answer about the reason why he was seen to be injured — pinned down to that car crash — or when it actually took place. Neither could they offer up a suitable explanation for why he might have been in China. They also went as far as to say he was never actually a cosmonaut and, indeed, it would appear that he wasn’t in the original cosmonaut team. No memoirs or declassified information put him there.
Yet it’s also difficult to corroborate the Judica-Cordiglia recordings with any data from official sources. Listening stations did not pick up on what they claimed to have committed to tape, and radio astronomer Bernard Lovell, who established the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, England, dismissed claims of earlier Russian manned space attempts in 1963.
Even that, however, isn’t as clear cut as it sounds. Lovell paid visits to Russia around this time, and there have even been allegations that he was brainwashed. He fell ill that year following such a trip, and the U.K. Ministry of Defence said it might have been due to an attempt to remove his memory of a Soviet offer to build a telescope facility in the U.S.S.R. His son says he was merely ill from exhaustion, according to an article published in February’s edition of Physics World magazine. And that sounds more plausible.
Besides, supposing Russia had suffered such terrible space attempts which resulted in deaths and crashes, would it really have announced Gagarin’s flight in the way it did?
As James E. Oberg points out in a 1975 article he wrote in Space World magazine, the Russian news agency TASS — frequently used as a front organisation by the Soviet intelligence agency — released its first bulletin while Gagarin was still in-flight. If it was worried about the potential for bad news, wouldn’t it have been better to wait until the mission was over and Gagarin’s feet were firmly back on the ground, rather than risk Gagarin’s spacecraft hitting the same problems as the one claimed to have taken place just days before?
Maybe we will never know. The two men who would have been directly involved are no longer alive — Gagarin was killed when the MiG-15 training jet he was piloting crashed on March 27, 1968, when he was 34. Given the evidence that has been made available, the smart money remains on Gagarin having been the first person on a manned spaceflight. Russian space history can be murky and difficult to pick apart, but in truth there is no real reason to lie in instances such as this.
Apparently, if you want to have a satisfying life, it’s best to not have the name Elizabeth Brewer. I have two stories completely unrelated except that center of each sombre tale is a woman named Elizabeth Brewer. That’s up next when Weird Darkness returns!
FUNDRAISER UPDATE #2: We all know someone who struggles with depression – whether we know it or not. It’s something those who suffer tend to deal with in silence, in the shadows. But the organizations we are supporting with our annual Overcoming The Darkness fundraiser are working to make it easier for those in the darkness to come into the light, to find help, and to learn they are not alone and that there are ways to overcome the darkness and live normal lives. I’m evidence of that myself, as I, too, suffer from depression.
*****Our goal is to raise at least $5,000 and I’d like to thank another anonymous donor who sent in $20 today. Thank you, Anonymous, for wanting to help people with depression.***** If you haven’t donated yet, or if you want to give again, or if you want to check out the Weirdling Woods painting that we’re auctioning off as part of our fundraiser, visit the Hope in the Darkness page at WeirdDarkness.com, or click the link in the show notes.
STORY: TWO TERRIBLE TALES OF ELIZABETH BREWER==========
On the 25th of May 1866, which was a Friday, a young man by the name of Joseph Irons was walking along a street in Limehouse in the East End of London. Suddenly, on seeing a small boy, John Spencer, he came to a halt. He had noticed two things. The first was that the little fellow, who was six years old, was clearly in some distress, and was crying. The second was that he had neither shoes nor boots on his feet. Irons guessed that the two were connected. His heart melted, and stooping down he asked the boy what had happened.
If we have the right Joseph Irons, then he was in his early twenties, a working-class lad born in Stepney. At the time of the incident he was living off the Commercial Road in Sidney Place, where his neighbours were tailors and drapers, butchers and grocers, and dealers in furniture, and paint, and furs. There was also a maker of nautical instruments, a reminder that the history of the Commercial Road, which had been built to connect the docks to the city, was inextricably tied up with the life of the river. In fact Irons was the son of a seafaring man, one of the bronzed-faced individuals who were to be seen, in the words of All The Year Round, at the “edge and final boundary” of the easternmost reaches of the city, where the whiff of tar spiced the air, and the faint clank of a windlass could often be heard.
Limehouse exercised a strange fascination over the more sensitive minds of the nineteenth century. Arthur Conan Doyle located the opium den in his story of the man with the twisted lip in a “a vile alley lurking behind the high wharves which line the north side of the river to the east of London Bridge”, and, when Oscar Wilde sent Dorian Gray to Limehouse in a hansom, there came to him from “far away in the darkness” the scream of “some wandering sea-gull”. The skyline of masts and the jumble of jetties and riverside houses inspired artists as well, most notably James McNeill Whistler, but also Gustave Doré and Charles Napier Hemy.
One of Whistler’s Limehouse series is a sketch of Captain Cuttle, the retired sea captain of Dombey and Son. Dickens gives a wonderful impression of the merging of city and river in the vicinity of the old salt’s lodgings, which: “began with the erection of flag staffs, as appurtenances to public-houses; then came slopsellers’ shops, with Guernsey shirts, sou’wester hats, and canvass pantaloons, at once the tightest and the loosest of their order, hanging up outside. These were succeeded by anchor and chain-cable forges, where sledge hammers were dinging upon iron all day long. Then came rows of houses, with little vane-surmounted masts uprearing themselves from among the scarlet beans. Then, ditches. Then, pollard willows. Then, more ditches. Then, unaccountable patches of dirty water, hardly to be descried, for the ships that covered them. Then, the air was perfumed with chips; and all other trades were swallowed up in mast, oar, and block making, and boat building. Then, the ground grew marshy and unsettled. Then, there was nothing to be smelt but rum and sugar.”
Limehouse also features in other works by the great novelist, as does the mingling of city and river. “Vessels that seemed to have got ashore,” he wrote in Our Mutual Friend, “and houses that seemed to have got afloat”. Not that this and other extraordinary images are merely fanciful, for Dickens really knewLimehouse. The opium eater’s den in the opening chapter of The Mystery of Edwin Drood was based on a real dive, which Dickens came across while touring the less salubrious corners of the capital with his friend James Thomas Fields. The American publisher was hugely impressed, and recalled that: “in a miserable court at night we found a haggard old woman blowing at a kind of pipe made of an old ink-bottle.”
One can only say that on his voyeuristic rambles through the heartlands of the East End he had in Dickens the perfect guide.
Dickens’s familiarity with Limehouse dated back to his childhood. His godfather, Christopher Huffam, lived in Church Row, which ran south off the Commercial Road. He had been a rigger in the Royal Navy, and no doubt imparted to his godson a rich store of maritime impressions. Many years later, when he was writing Our Mutual Friend, Dickens would be spotted by the locals, and The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters is thought to be a fictional version of a real tavern, The Bunch of Grapes, which at the time of our story was run by the splendidly named John Topliff Kinipple at 36 Fore Street. Indeed, it was at the western end of Fore Street, in Narrow Street, that Joseph Irons encountered the six-year-old John Spencer, barefoot and weeping, on that Friday in 1866.
Narrow Street, which, as the name suggests, was not very wide, ran parallel with and close to the river. Much of the trade along its length was nautical. There were sail makers and mast makers, as one would expect, and riggers and chandlers, as one would hope, but also bakers, of whom more than one were bakers of biscuits, and one was certainly a baker of ship’s biscuits. The last of these businesses was owned by Messrs Parkinson and Salmon. They were wholesale suppliers to the army and navy, and their premises, Phoenix Mills, housed assorted machinery and sacks and sacks of flour.
Now, when Joseph Irons stood up, and looked along Narrow Street, he caught sight of a woman moving rapidly away from the scene. Little John Spencer pointed in her direction. Picking the boy up, and holding him in his arms, Irons gave chase. He soon caught up with the woman, whose name, it turned out, was Elizabeth Brewer. “What have you got there under your shawl?” Irons demanded. He tugged the woman’s arm until she released whatever it was that she was hiding under her shawl. And down on to the pavement fell the boy’s boots.
Spotting an officer of the law—Police Constable Hart of the Stepney Division—Irons handed Brewer over. Hart led the prisoner off to the Thames Police Court, which stood north of the Commercial Road in Arbour Square. Obviously she was up to no good, for Hart noticed that at some point on the journey she had taken out three pawn tickets, which she surreptitiously tore up, throwing the pieces down on the ground.
At the police court the constable’s suspicions were confirmed when Brewer confessed. Seeing the little boy in Narrow Street she had called him over. “Let me pull your boots off,” she had said, “and I’ll give you a penny”. When asked to explain her actions Brewer said that she had been hungry. The workhouse in Poplar had turned her away: she must either steal or starve.
In due course Brewer was brought before John Paget, the Thames magistrate, to answer the charges made against her by the police. She was forty-eight years old, and a sempstress. She stated once again that she had taken John Spencer’s boots, which were worth two shillings and six, out of sheer necessity. But the witnesses were having none of this. “There is not a word of truth in it,“ declared Inspector Beare of the Stepney Division. “The prisoner is an incorrigible thief.”
The journalist Henry Mayhew knew all about this sort of crime—“child stripping”—and in his account of it in London Labour and the London Poor he included some disturbing details. The thieves were typically older women, who would be less obviously threatening than men, and the lure would be either money, as used by Elizabeth Brewer, or sweets. As a rule the crime was committed in the evening, when it was dark, and in the winter, when little children would be wearing hats and coats as well as boots and shoes—if they had them. Brewer was unusual, though, in that she operated close to her home in North Street in Poplar, risking detection.
Mayhew reported that in 1860—only a few years before the Narrow Street incident—there were almost a hundred thefts from children. He was shocked by the cynicism of the perpetrators. As for Elizabeth Brewer, she was a repeat offender, as Inspector Beare claimed. In 1865, for example, she had been found guilty of stealing boots, worth five shillings, from a girl by the name of Elizabeth Ann Wright. She was sent to the House of Correction at Tothill Fields for nine months, and attacked John Spencer only weeks after her release.
Should we take into account the grinding poverty that afflicted those living on the very margins of society? Paget thought not, and he sent Brewer back to Tothill Fields, this time for a full year. And so ends her story. What became of her is hard to determine: there were very many Elizabeth Brewers! For the same reason John Spencer cannot be reliably traced. But Joseph Irons can. He had various occupations—for many years he worked as a cabman—and he lived a long life. He must have had his ups and downs, as at one point he spent time in the Bow Road workhouse. He also had many children, and one must hope that he kept them supplied with sturdy boots and shoes.
As I said, we don’t know what happened to Elizabeth Brewer because there were many women of that name at the time. I’m about to tell you another story that also concerns an Elizabeth Brewer. However, the two Elizabeths are not the same. Whereas the first was forty-eight at the time of her story, that is to say in the year 1866, this next one was only sixteen at the time of her story, and was in the year 1880. This second Elizabeth had only just been born when the first was caught robbing poor John Spencer in Narrow Street in Limehouse.
As well as having the name of the protagonist in common, the two stories share the setting of the East End of London, and, more exactly, the Commercial Road. Furthermore both must be read against the background of the deprivations of the London poor, and both involve the Stepney division of the metropolitan police. But there, as you will see, the similarities end.
The White Swan Hotel at 225 Shadwell High Street was once one of the most notorious drinking holes in the capital. Attracting a volatile assortment of local hard men and crews from the ships in the docks, it offered a heady mix of drinking and dancing and much else besides. Writers with a taste for the exotic and the dangerous gave it a gloriously bad press. They described the vice and the degradation, the brawling and the killing, the bovine appetites that made its patrons easy prey for unscrupulous con men and abandoned women. As one journalist put it, the White Swan was “perhaps the most frightful hell-hole” in all of London.
Now on the 31st of October, which was a cold and blustery Sunday, Elizabeth Brewer came to the White Swan Hotel in search of work. The owner, John Kersten, took her on. But within a matter of days he could see that she was struggling with the work, which necessitated long hours on her feet. He guessed from her appearance that the girl was pregnant, and, when he questioned her, she admitted that she was. He told her that she would have to leave.
And so on Sunday the 7th of November, at about three o’clock in the afternoon, Elizabeth left the White Swan Hotel. She asked Kersten if she could leave her belongings until she was sorted. He agreed, and the next day, as arranged, Elizabeth came to collect two parcels, which appeared to be all that she had in the world. Kersten had not noticed the parcels when Elizabeth had arrived the week before, but he did not ask about them, and minutes later she was gone.
Once long ago, where the eastern reaches of Mile End begin to peter out, there was a Victoria Road. Now gone, in 1880 it ran from Old Ford Road up to Duckett’s Canal at the southern edge of Victoria Park. The dwellings along its length were modest, their occupants working men and women, in the main, who lived cheek by jowl in rooms packed to the rafters. And in one of these crowded houses—no.8—lodged a woman by the name of Margaret Kelly.
Late on Monday the 8th of November, at about half-past eleven, Margaret was out and about when she spotted something that made her stop. Some men were standing around the huddled figure of a young girl, who was sitting on a doorstep, holding two parcels. Seeing that she was in great distress Margaret asked her what the matter was, and through her tears the girl said that she had no place to go to. “What is your name?” Margaret asked. “Elizabeth,” the girl replied. “Well, Elizabeth,” Margaret said, “you can lodge with me.”
Margaret led Elizabeth to the house in Victoria Road, where she gave her a room with a bed and a cupboard. She observed her closely as she stowed her parcels in the cupboard. Then, struck by her poor physical condition, Margaret put it to Elizabeth that she must have recently given birth. She was met with flat denials, which bothered her, as did the girl’s curious habit over the next few days of taking the parcels out of the cupboard when night fell, and sleeping with them under her head. On the Thursday, when there was a sickly smell in the room, Margaret demanded to know what was in the cupboard. “There is nothing there that belongs to you,” Elizabeth said, standing in the way.
On the Friday a further bizarre incident upset Margaret, when in the evening Elizabeth went out without saying where she was going, and stayed out all night. On the Saturday she did the same. And on the Sunday, when she did not return, and with the smell in the room now becoming intolerable, Margaret opened the cupboard. With thumping heart she untied the two parcels, and peered inside.
On the night of Sunday the 14th of November a Stepney Division police constable by the name of William Nicholas was on duty in Philpot Street when he heard excited voices. He hurried down into the Commercial Road, where people were staring at a young girl who, clutching a parcel, was walking through their midst with a dazed and distracted look on her face. When Nicholas asked her where she lived, the girl said that she had been living in Victoria Road, but had been ordered to leave. “And what is that in there?” he asked as he reached out to open the parcel. Elizabeth stared up at him, tears filling her eyes.
With the awful truth of the matter now apparent, a sombre silence settled over the crowd of horrified but sympathetic onlookers. However, the constable was obliged to take Elizabeth to the police station in Arbour Square, and, because she was on her last legs, he sent for a cab. When they got there, Nicholas called for Dr James Horton, a police surgeon, who verified that Elizabeth had indeed recently been delivered of a child, and that the child in the parcel was therefore in all likelihood hers. Elizabeth told Horton her story, beginning with her brief stay at the White Swan Hotel. She went on to explain that when her labour started she had been in the Commercial Road. She had been in great pain, and then, in a matter of a minute or two, the business had been done.
On Thursday the 18th of November an inquest was held in Mile End under the auspices of John Humphreys, the coroner for the Eastern District of the County of Middlesex. The witnesses were John Kersten and Margaret Kelly and William Nicholas. The jury, guided by the police surgeon’s medical evidence, concluded that Elizabeth’s child had been stillborn. And there one might think that the sorry matter must come to an end.
But the law saw it differently, for concealing a birth was, and still is, a crime. Elizabeth would be charged, and would have to explain to the police court in Arbour Square what she had done, and why. Even so, justice would have to wait, for Elizabeth was very ill. The surgeon had sent her to the Mile End Infirmary, where, quite possibly, she died.
If there is nothing to say that she did die, equally there is nothing to say that she did not. So much about her—the befores and the afters—is wrapped in silence. The facts are few. She was the daughter of a gamekeeper, Joseph Brewer. She had many brothers and sisters. She came from Bramfield in Hertfordshire, and went to the National School there before moving down to London. She was pregnant at fifteen, a mother at sixteen. And she carried the body of her child in a parcel—at once a cradle and a coffin—until she was discovered late one night alone in the Commercial Road.
SHOW CLOSE, CREDITS, A LITTLE LIGHT, AND A FINAL THOUGHT==========
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All stories in Weird Darkness are purported to be true (unless stated otherwise) and you can find source links or links to the authors in the show notes.
“How Dangerous Is The Ouija Board” by Stephen Wagner and Mary Bellis for LiveAbout.com
“The Cosmonaut Conspiracy” by David Crookes from All About Space Magazine, posted at LiveScience.com
“Two Terrible Tales of Elizabeth Brewer” by William Ellis-Rees for London Overlooked.
Again, you can find links to all of these stories in the show notes.
WeirdDarkness™ – is a production and trademark of Marlar House Productions. Copyright, Weird Darkness, 2022.
Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” – Psalm 19:1
And a final thought… “The souls that have seen the darkest days can shine the brightest light. Keep going.” – Unknown
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.