“CURSED RELICS AND THE KARMA THEY BROUGHT TO THOSE WHO STOLE THEM” and More! #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: It was Labor Day, 1980 when Cynthia Clements disappeared – it wouldn’t be until more than a month later that her body would be found. And we still don’t know who killed her. (The Unsolved Murder of Cynthia Clements) *** A harbinger of doom is a sign, a warning of bad things to come. A supernatural forerunner to disaster, you might say – which several do, in Canada. There, they are more than familiar with forerunners of disaster and have several examples they could point to from over the years. (Canada’s Harbingers of Doom) *** Can you sue a schnauzer? Can you take a cat to court? Put a Terrier on trial? Can you arrest a mule for murder? You’d be surprised how many animals have been put on trial – and for what reasons! (Accused Critters In Court) *** Wilford Sweeten was found dead of food poisoning. Then across town, a pastor’s wife was found dead of food poisoning as well. And that’ when rumors already circulating in the small town of Ida, Illinois began to be confirmed – and the identities of the killers would shock people nationwide. (The Murdering Minister) *** It was probably said best by Old Time Radio’s “The Shadow” when he said at the beginning of each episode, “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit… crime does not pay.” But true life criminals don’t seem to be too concerned about that. Some thieves, however, did learn it the hard way – when they stole what turned out to be cursed relics… and paid the price for swiping them. (Cursed Relics And The Karma They Brought To Those Who Stole Them)
SOURCES AND REFERENCES FROM THE EPISODE…
“Cursed Relics And The Karma They Brought To Those Who Stole Them” by Melissa Brinks for Graveyard Shift:https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/2p98v4bt
“The Unsolved Murder of Cynthia Clements” by Robert A. Waters for Kidnapping Murder and Mayhem:https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/5btt6eh4
“Canada’s Harbingers of Doom” posted at Mysteries of Canada: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/yckvmwxz
BOOK: “Bluenose Ghosts” by Helen Creighton: https://amzn.to/44R46zK
BOOK: “Folklore – Prince Edward Island” by Sterling Ramsay: https://amzn.to/43NlS5B
BOOK: “Mysteries of Canada, Volume 1” by Hammerson Peters: https://amzn.to/3OzAtgH
BOOK: “Folklore of Nova Scotia” by Mary L. Fraser: https://amzn.to/3DCWAww
“Accused Critters In Court” by Jodi Smith for Weird History: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/2p9e5y9m
“The Murdering Minister” by Troy Taylor: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/y4bx3r5w
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IDENTIFY THE IMPOSTER: Hey, Weirdos – if you played “Identify the Imposter” on my Patreon page for today’s show, the story that is a hoax and is NOT one of the stories in this episode is: “Did They Encounter a Living Sabertooth?”
DISCLAIMER: Stories and content in Weird Darkness can be disturbing for some listeners and intended for mature audiences only. Parental discretion is strongly advised.
We’re all familiar with the unwieldy power of ancient relics from movies like Indiana Jones, but what if those powers were real? In the case of the items we’re about to discuss, that might just be the case. Any archeologist will tell you that it’s better to spend your days carefully digging centimeters at a time than to find yourself being chased by cursed mummies through tombs – but that doesn’t mean you wont stumble upon a scary artifact or two. Historical haunted objects carry not only the stories of the past, but also a hefty curse, ghost, or other supernatural connection that makes them less than desirable to find. What’s particularly interesting about this is not what scary relics do, but how easy it is for people to come across them by accident. It doesn’t take a grave robber to find haunted artifacts – in some cases they’re more likely to find you first.
I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness.
Welcome, Weirdos – 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…
It was Labor Day, 1980 when Cynthia Clements disappeared – it wouldn’t be until more than a month later that her body would be found. And we still don’t know who killed her. (The Unsolved Murder of Cynthia Clements)
A harbinger of doom is a sign, a warning of bad things to come. A supernatural forerunner to disaster, you might say – which several do, in Canada. There, they are more than familiar with forerunners of disaster and have several examples they could point to from over the years. (Canada’s Harbingers of Doom)
Can you sue a schnauzer? Can you take a cat to court? Put a Terrier on trial? Can you arrest a mule for murder? You’d be surprised how many animals have been put on trial – and for what reasons! (Accused Critters In Court)
Wilford Sweeten was found dead of food poisoning. Then across town, a pastor’s wife was found dead of food poisoning as well. And that’ when rumors already circulating in the small town of Ida, Illinois began to be confirmed – and the identities of the killers would shock people nationwide. (The Murdering Minister)
It was probably said best by Old Time Radio’s “The Shadow” when he said at the beginning of each episode, “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit… crime does not pay.” But true life criminals don’t seem to be too concerned about that. Some thieves, however, did learn it the hard way – when they stole what turned out to be cursed relics… and paid the price for swiping them. (Cursed Relics And The Karma They Brought To Those Who Stole Them)
If you’re new here, welcome to the show! While you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com for merchandise, my newsletter, to 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.
Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
STORY: CURSED RELICS AND THE KARMA THEY BROUGHT TO THOSE WHO STOLE THEM=====
Stealing artifacts is a terrible thing to do, curse or no curse, but sometimes these artifacts will exact their own revenge. In 2007, a man reportedly returned a carving that had been stolen by his stepfather along with a note explaining that terrible things had come from the theft. According to the note, which remains anonymous, the man who stole the carving suffered severe health problems, including fevers and paralysis, before ultimately succumbing to cancer. His stepson returned the carving to atone for his stepfather’s stealing it, but also to end the curse that he believed lay on his family as a result of the theft.
The case of Blanding, UT, may be less the result of a curse and more a case of police involvement, but it’s hard to deny that the ongoing theft of Native American, specifically Anasazi, relics hasn’t hurt the town. After years of collecting pottery and arrowheads from local Anasazi sites, many members of the town turned to outright grave robbing, selling the artifacts online to turn a profit. A subsequent FBI investigation (which many claim was poorly handled by the organization in question) reportedly led to three suicides and multiple arrests, rocking the little town to its core. With countless sites destroyed by rampant looting and many Anasazi artifacts ruined or lost forever, punishment is certainly in order, though the three lives lost to the investigation color the entire situation with a decidedly dark overtone.
The ancient city of Gamla was once a city ravaged by war and was the site of a siege that marked the beginning of the First Jewish-Roman War in 66 CE. One of the go-to weapons of this period was the ballista ball, which the Romans would shoot into the Jewish city to keep people away long enough to then hit them with a battering ram. Two ballista balls were stolen in 1995 and were then returned in 2015, with a warning stating that no good had come from stealing them. The full note read: “These are two Roman ballista balls from Gamla, from a residential quarter at the foot of the summit. I stole them in July 1995, and since then they have brought me nothing but trouble. Please, do not steal antiquities!”
Legend has it that an Italian bride once received a beautiful silver vase as a wedding gift, but on the night of her wedding she was found dying on her bedroom floor clutching the vase. With her last words, she swore to return and have vengeance while holding the vase. Since then, the cursed vase is said to have caused the deaths of every subsequent owner, including the bride’s family members and an unfortunate archaeologist. Apparently museums even refuse to take in the artifact because of the curse, and it’s instead been buried, hopefully never to be dug up again.
In the 19th century, it was common to cover up mirrors when there had been a death in the household, lest the spirit become trapped in the mirror for eternity. The Myrtles’s home, commonly cited as one of America’s most haunted properties, seems to reinforce this superstition. According to legend, one mirror was forgotten about during this death ritual, causing the spirits of some of the deceased family members to become trapped and leave hand prints on a mirror that still hangs on the premises to this day. Though the many legends told about this property include some outright falsehoods, many people claim to have seen strange shapes appear in the mirror, certainly indicating that there’s something supernatural at work.
A spooky old castle with a bunch of ancient artifacts sounds like the beginning of a horror movie, and in the case of Belcourt Castle, it might as well be. Built in 1891, the castle was intended to house Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont’s collection of rare artifacts, most of which related to his love of horses. But those artifacts have taken on a reputation of their own -namely, that a few of them are definitely cursed. There are haunted chairs that reportedly wont allow people to sit in them, and even a suit of armor that screams at the time of its owner’s death each year.
Even stealing a quick snapshot of a cursed object can cause problems unless you ask it for permission first. Robert the Doll gained a reputation for mischief early in his life. Created as a simulacrum of his owner, Robert Eugene Otto, the doll has often been blamed for misdeeds and trouble in the house. While Otto went on to become a famous artist, his doll certainly made a name for himself as well. Since Otto’s death, the doll has found a home at the Fort East Martello Museum where cameras have reportedly malfunctioned in his presence, and his threatening aura has reportedly caused people to write letters to him begging for his forgiveness. The reason? Nobody’s completely sure, but it’s rumored that Robert was actually created by a vengeful family servant upset with the way the Ottos treated their employees.
Thomas Busby was known for being a drunkard, a thief, and a liar. But in 1702, he also became a murderer, reportedly killing his father for sitting in his favorite chair. Busby was found out and promptly sentenced to death, and, as the story goes, he requested that his final meal be served while he sat in his favorite chair. As he left for the gallows, it’s said that he cursed the chair to kill anybody who sat in it after him. And, according to legend, it worked – some sixty people are said to have died after sitting in the chair, and the museum that currently houses it has placed it up on a wall to prevent anybody else from falling victim to its curse.
When Kevin Mannis purchased a fancy wine box at an estate sale, he didn’t expect to find a malevolent spirit awaiting him inside. The box is said to be haunted by a type of spirit called a dybbuk, which, according to Mannis and the other owners who have come into contact with it, causes sudden illnesses, strange shadows, and terrifying nightmares. The box has since been sealed away by its current owner, who believes it’s an artifact deserving of study…provided it stops causing harm first.
A wedding is supposed to be one of the happiest days of a couple’s life, but Anna Baker’s wedding day never came. According to legend, Anna fell in love with a man of lower status, but her father prohibited them from getting married. As punishment, he passed the extravagant gown that she’d chosen for herself on to another woman who then viciously mocked Anna for being a spinster. Today, Anna’s dress is on display at the Baker Mansion, and has been said to move on its own within its glass case, perhaps because Anna’s spirit is still angry at having been denied the opportunity to wear it.
A harbinger of doom is a sign, a warning of bad things to come. A supernatural forerunner to disaster, you might say – which several do, in Canada. There, they are more than familiar with forerunners of disaster and have several examples they could point to from over the years. Those stories are up next.
STORY: CANADA’S HARBINGERS OF DOOM=====
The December 1962 issue of the magazine Fate – one of the many editions of that publication which can be found in the archives of the late great Fortean researcher Gary Mangiacopra – contains a fascinating article written by Gus Cazzola of Union City, New Jersey. In this piece, Cazzola describes a strange phenomenon unique to his in-laws, the DeStefano family, who hailed from the New Jersey town of West New York.
Cazzola was introduced to this weird familial quirk on March 17th, 1958, when he and his wife’s family were gathered around the DeStefano television set. “Suddenly, at 4:00 P.M.,” Cazzola wrote, “a bright flash cut through the crowded room. I blinked frantically to regain my sight. The television was black; obviously, a tube had blown. My in-laws, however, didn’t take it so lightly. My father-in-law turned a ghoulish white and abruptly left the room. The kids gaped in horror at the silent set and ran outside. Even my wife gripped my arm a little harder.
“‘What’s going on?’ I asked innocently. My wife shook her head mutely and uttered a strained laugh.
“Shortly thereafter, we received word that my wife’s grandmother, Mrs. Mary DeStefano, had died at about 1:00, three hours before the television set blew.”
Cazzola came to learn that this precise series of events invariably succeeded a death in the family. When someone close to the DeStefanos died, their television would blow out exactly three hours later, like clockwork. The same thing happened in February 1959, when Cazzola’s wife’s grandfather passed away; and in March 1960, when her great uncle died. Cazzola had the dead TV examined professionally after one of these incidents, and learned that the internal wiring and insulation had melted together into a single solid mass, as if the device had been struck by a lightning bolt. The only deviation from this appalling pattern occurred in May 1962, when Cazzola’s father-in-law, Joseph DeStefano, accidentally crushed his hand at work. Three hours later, the picture tube in the family television set blew out, but the audio remained unaltered.
The strange case of the DeStefanos and their television sets strongly evokes the legend of the forerunner – a peculiarity of Canadian Maritime folklore which bears elements in common with the shrieking Banshee of Irish tradition and the ominous doppelganger of German lore. The forerunner is a portent of death perhaps most closely akin to the wraith of Scottish ghostlore, wraiths being shades of the recently-deceased which appear to friends and family members at the moment of the former’s death, as if in an attempt to inform them of the development, or to say goodbye. While classic wraiths manifest as visible apparitions, forerunners are invisible harbingers of death, which communicate their awful messages through touch and sound.
***Perhaps the most authoritative summary of the forerunner phenomenon is a passage in the 1957 classic Bluenose Ghosts, written by Nova Scotian folklorist Dr. Helen Creighton, which I will link to in the show notes. “Forerunners,” Creighton wrote in the first chapter of her book, “are supernatural warnings of approaching events, and are usually connected with impending death. They come in many forms, and are startling, as though the important thing is to get the hearer’s attention. The most common forerunners are a picture falling off a wall or a calendar dropping to the floor at the moment when a distant loved one has died. Or you may hear your named called as I did when the mother of a friend died, although she had not called me at all.”
Creighton dedicated a good portion of her book to the forerunner phenomenon, including two such stories in her Prologue. The first anecdote she related was her own personal experience, which took place just prior to the death of her sister-in-law, the wife of her eldest brother, who had battled for some time with a deadly sickness.
“It had been a long illness,” she wrote, “one that was very hard on both the patient and her family. We turned to anything that would distract the children, and one evening three of us sat in the drawing-room playing cards. Suddenly we were interrupted by a loud knocking. We all heard it and stopped playing. I made the obvious remark, ‘There’s someone at the door.’”
One of Creighton’s daughters pointed out that the sound couldn’t have been a person knocking, as there was no door on that side of the house. Nevertheless, to satisfy their mother’s curiosity, another of her daughters went to the front door and confirmed that there was indeed no one there.
At the time, Creighton was mystified by the experience, and made no connection between it and the death of her sister-in-law, which took place shortly thereafter. It was only years later, in 1928, when she interviewed two elderly Nova Scotian brothers as part of an effort to collect traditional Maritime folk tunes, that she was made aware that the three sharp raps she had heard on the wall were classic cases of what old Eastern Canadians called “death knocks”.
“These are heard in certain houses or by certain people,” she wrote, “and they come as a warning of approaching death. Whether my sister-in-law died on the day following the knocks or a few days later, none of us could recall… Certainly at the time, we all heard it – three slow deliberate knocks that insisted upon our attention.
“I’ve heard the knocks only once since then, and in a different house. I was sitting at my desk one morning shortly before twelve o’clock when I was startled by three distinct knocks. In my house there are many noises caused partly by the steam-heating system, and partly by people in other apartments. But there was something about these knocks that disturbed me greatly.”
Alarmed, Creighton asked her neighbour, who lived in the adjoining apartment, whether she had also heard the knocks, but the neighbour hadn’t heard a thing. Fearing the worst, Creighton drove to the home of a friend whom she had seen earlier that day, who was suffering from a mild illness, but determined that her friend was fine.
Later that day, after she had returned to her own apartment, she received a phone call informing her that the husband of a close friend had died in a car accident around the same time she had heard the knocks. “When his wife was asked whom she would like to have with her,” Creighton wrote, “she had asked for me. Knowing she would want me, and all three of us being very close, I suppose he had been trying to get through to me.”
***Not confined to the traditions of Nova Scotia, the story of the death knock is also a staple of Prince Edward Island folklore, Prince Edward Island (PEI) being Canada’s smallest province, nestled in the Gulf of St. Lawrence just north of Nova Scotia. Folklorist Sterling Ramsay included one such story in his 1973 book Folklore: Prince Edward Island – I’ve placed to this book in the show description as well.
“Island people in years gone by,” Ramsay wrote in his introduction to the subject, “were rather firm believers in forerunners: in supernatural warnings of one kind or another of impending death or some event that lay ahead in the future. Many people who disclaimed all belief in the supernatural openly admitted to at least one time or another being confronted with a forerunner in one of its many forms… Two of the most common are the hearing of one’s name being called at the time of another’s death and three mysterious knocks at a door when apparently there is no one else around that could have done the knocking. Both of these are found in this one experience, a rather unusual occurrence.”
Ramsey proceeded to relate the account of a woman from Ellerslie, a rural community located Up West, as Islanders refer to the wilder western half of their island province. In the summer of 1967, the storyteller and her family moved into a farmhouse at Ellerslie. Shortly after their relocation, her widowed mother came to spend a few weeks with them, as was her summer custom. Although she was 72 years old, her mother was healthy and active, and prided herself on never having been sick a day in her life.
“It was late one night on the second week she was with us,” the storyteller said, “that she came to my bedroom to ask if I had knocked on her door. She had heard three knocks but when she went to the door and looked into the hall, there was nobody to be seen. The next morning we discovered that no one had been near her room and she had been the only one to hear the knocking. We were certain that she had imagined the whole thing, but three nights later it happened again. This time I also heard what sounded like three knocks coming from down the hall. Again we could not discover who or what was responsible. The following week mother went home and I completely forgot what had gone on during her visit.
“On the first evening after mother left I decided to retire early, but sometime during the night I was awakened by what sounded like a woman’s voice. The more I listened, the more it sounded like the voice of my mother calling my name. I was unable to go back to sleep so I went down to the kitchen and noticed that it was just about three o’clock. I put the whole thing down as some sort of strange dream and thought nothing more of it until the next morning when I received a call from the woman who shared my mother’s home.
“She had been called to mother’s room at about a quarter to three the previous night. Mother seemed deathly ill and a few minutes later she passed on. I knew then what it all had meant.”
***It is perhaps worth mentioning here that three disembodied knocks have been associated with the poltergeist phenomenon, and have been reported in many suspected cases of demonic infestation. For example, readers of Hammerson Peter’s 2018 book Mysteries of Canada: Volume I (link in the show notes) may recall the story of Louis and Ethel Hilchie, whose home in a peaceful suburb of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was invaded by some malicious invisible entity on Christmas Eve, 1943, which first announced its presence by shattering the evening’s tranquility with three deep, hollow-sounding knocks.
As controversial American demonologist Ed Warren explained in an interview with writer Gerald Brittle:
“Phenomena that occur in threes are a signature of the demonic… Often, the very first thing to happen in a case of infestation is that there will be three knocks at the door. There won’t be anyone there, of course, at least nobody visible…
“Three is used as a signal… Three is purposely used as an insult – to mock the Trinity.”
***One rare sort of forerunner evoking the death knock phenomenon was described by one Venona Hutmacher in her article in the June 1961 issue of Fate. Although Venona was a resident of Toronto, Ontario, at the time she penned her story, she had grown up in the rural community of Ship Harbour, on the eastern shores of Nova Scotia up the coast from Halifax.
When she was a little girl, Venona’s beautiful young Aunt Min lived with her and her family. Back in 1895, Aunt Min was engaged to marry a fisherman named Dan. Like most members of his profession at that time, Dan spent most of the week sleeping in a shack on one of the little islands that dotted the coastline, from which he could head out to sea in his fishing boat early every weekday morning. Every Saturday night, he and his fellow fishermen came back to the mainland in order to spend Sundays with their families.
“It was a week before the wedding on a Saturday night,” Venona wrote. “A terrible storm had blown up. The wind howled like a Banshee; thunder and lightning rent the skies. The sea rolled in torrents and breakers, rising mountains high, dashed against the shores. The rafters of our house shook with the terrible force of the gale and everyone remembered the fishermen on the Islands who would not be coming home this night.
“My mother was knitting and Father was reading. We youngsters were busy at our school work. Aunt Min was sitting by the fire with her feet in the oven, as she said that bad storms always ‘gave her a chill’. It was late spring, lobster fishing time, but there was always need of a bit of fire.
“Mother bundled us children off to bed finally but my room was just off the kitchen where the family usually spent their evenings and I could hear every word of the conversation. Aunt Min seemed worried and pensive. I heard her speaking to my father. ‘Jim,’ she said, ‘do you suppose Dan would attempt to cross the Bay tonight?’
“Father answered, ‘Only a fool would attempt to cross on a night like this and Dan’s no fool.’
“‘Well, I don’t know,’ Min continued. ‘Our wedding is only a week away, you know. He would want to come in if possible.’
“‘Of course he would, Min,’ Mother said. ‘But he wouldn’t dare try it.’
“‘Well, my girl,’ Father said half seriously, ‘If he does there’ll be no wedding you can be sure of that.’
“Everything was silent for a while then, except for the beat of the storm outside. Suddenly I heard Aunt Min scream in an angry high-pitched voice, ‘Jim, how dare you slap me like that?’
“‘Slap you?’ Father said. ‘Are you crazy, girl? I didn’t slap you.’
“‘How dumb do you think I am?’ Aunt Min replied. ‘Just don’t do it again, Jim. I’m not in the mood for fun.’
“Mother thought Aunt Min might be getting a sudden jumping toothache and only imagined she’d been slapped for certainly no one there had slapped her. But a few moments later she jumped up again, her voice very angry, accusing Father of slapping her a second time.
“Father said he thought she was taking leave of her senses.
“But Aunt Min had been slapped twice and what else could she think that her brother was playing a silly trick on her. She had turned around to face Father and Mother then, to put an end to the nonsense, when suddenly she received another hard slap. She could see it had not been Father after all.
“‘But what hit me? Who did it?’ she said. And then quite suddenly she began to cry. Somehow Aunt Min knew it was Dan. He had tried to cross the Bay after all and now was in trouble and needed her. She knew it. Deep inside, she knew that Dan was dead. I heard her say so.
“Grandfather found Dan’s boat the following morning where she had drifted ashore on Catfish Point, her sails flapping loosely in the wind that had died down to a pleasant breeze. Nearby lay Dan’s bruised body. It had come drifting in with his boat. Dan had been struck with the boom and apparently knocked overboard unconscious.
“So, there was no wedding after all.
“But who, or what, had slapped Aunt Min? And why?
“Was it Dan’s subconscious mind calling to his loved one for help in his hour of need? Or did Aunt Min also feel the blows of the boom that killed Dan? We do not know. But we remember the terrible night that something slapped Aunt Min.”
***Following her exposition of the death knock phenomenon, Helen Creighton, in Bluenose Ghosts, went on to describe a number of other Nova Scotian forerunner stories she had collected, lumping various phenomena which other folkloric traditions know by different names – like premonitions, wills-o’-the-wisp, and the aforementioned wraith and doppelganger – under the same broad forerunner umbrella, as have all other Maritime folklorists who have written on the subject.
One unique type of forerunner detailed in Bluenose Ghosts is a strange and unaccountable noise which, though initially meaningless to those who hear it, will later be replicated exactly during some heart-rending future scene, such as the funerary preparations of someone known to the hearers. These auditory omens are often, if not invariably, heard in the exact same locations as that at which the events they foretell will later take place. Like the doppelganger phenomenon, they almost inspire the impression that they are the cryptic attempts of some paranormal force to warn the residents of a certain area of an impending tragedy, or to prepare them for some future emotional trauma. Alternatively, proponents of the Stone Tape Theory – the idea that emotionally-charged events can be indelibly seared into particular locations and replayed to hapless passers-by like ghostly tape recordings – might argue that these aural auguries are the imperishable byproducts of powerful emotions, which are bound to the places at which they were experienced, and which somehow transcend the temporal dimension. A third explanation for this strange phenomenon was proposed by folklorist Mary L. Fraser in her 1932 book Folklore of Nova Scotia… again, I’ll link to this book in the show notes as well. In her book she writes, “There is a persistent tradition, that the spirits of the living rehearse the making of coffins, the funeral preparations, even the funeral processions. Those who have the Second Sight see these things, those who have not, very often hear what is going on, although they cannot see them.”
The Second Sight to which Fraser referred is an Anglo-Celtic term, borrowed from the British Isles, denoting the gift of clairvoyance, and a sensitivity to preternatural phenomena. Some of those who have written on the subject have proposed that forerunner stories are so prevalent in Atlantic Canada because, with the exception of the native Mi’kmaq, the descendants of old Acadian settlers, the progeny of German immigrants, and the descendants of black Loyalists, most of the region is populated by people of Scottish, Irish, and English stock, those ethnicities supposedly having a higher incidence of that mysterious characteristic.
***Bluenose Ghosts contains two tales of auditory forerunners, which Helen Creighton heard firsthand. Both of these stories are set in the town of Clarke’s Harbour, on Cape Sable Island, a bleak windswept isle which lies just off the province’s southern tip. One of these stories was told by a widow who had spent her whole live in that seaside settlement. When she was a girl, this woman’s father spent the winters fishing at sea. In order to keep her mother company, one of her female cousins often moved into their house for the season and slept in her mother’s bed at night.
“One night,” the widow told Creighton, “at twelve o’clock something woke them up, and at first neither of them spoke. Finally my cousin said, ‘Aunt Isabel, do you hear anything?’
“She said yes, she did. It was a frosty night, and what they heard was a rumbling coming down the road, rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble. It rumbled by the house like a wagon was going over a frosty road. They were frozen in bed because it seemed to be coming straight towards our house, and that’s what it did.
“It came rumbling around the house and stopped by the front door. They clung together in terror. Then they heard a knock like somebody pounding on something that was frozen. Then it sounded like something being thrown away. By and by it started again and turned around and rumbled back over the road until the sound was lost in the distance. They couldn’t figure it out because they knew the sound of every wagon and who owned it, and who would that be driving up the road and turning off and stopping at their very door?”
Terrified, the storyteller’s mother and cousin together roused their neighbour, Maurice Nickerson, and informed him of the strange sounds they had heard. Lantern in hand, Nickerson examined the road outside the house, but could find no evidence of wagon tracks in the snow. He then condescended to spend the night in the ladies’ house in order to keep them company, and nobly stood sentry until dawn.
The women were terrified that the strange commotion was a forerunner heralding the death of the man of the house, whom they presumed had drowned at sea. “Ma cried and took on something awful,” the storyteller said, “but the forerunner wasn’t for my father. It was for one of the little boys who was taken sick and in a week was dead from diphtheria.
“The day he was buried was frosty and cold, just as it had been that night. He had been prepared in the house for burial. Then the hearse started up the road for the funeral, and it made exactly the same noise they had heard. All the people in the house could hear it coming over the frosty ground, and it came rumbling up the frozen road and rumbled right up to the house. Then it stopped before the door just the way they’d heard it. Ma and my aunt couldn’t speak. They were listening for the next thing to happen. The hearse had a door at the back with a lock, and the undertaker couldn’t get the lock open, so he picked up a rock and hit it. Then he threw the rock away exactly as they’d heard it that night. Everything was repeated in detail, and it happened about sixty years ago.”
Creighton’s second story was told to her by Miss Evelyn Swim, a housemate of the widowed teller of the previous story. The strange event which features in this tale is a hybrid of the two types of forerunners above described, namely the death knock, and the auditory rehearsal of funerary preparations.
One day years earlier, when Swim lived with her parents, a sick toddler, whom she did not identify, was sleeping in a room in her family’s house. “He was not thought sick enough to die,” Swim told the folklorist. “Mother was stitching, and Aunt Julie had just come from her room when they heard a little knock. Mother said, ‘You go see who that is.’ Aunt Julie went, but she came back and said, ‘Levie, there’s nobody there.’ Then came another knock. She looked out and still there was nobody there. She went back to the child’s room and everything seemed in order. The knock came then for the third time. They couldn’t understand it unless it was somebody playing a prank, but there was no sign of anybody anywhere. In a few days the baby passed away, and shortly afterwards the coffin maker came to get measurements. He put the child’s body in the coffin and he used a hammer to drive little brads into the coffin. This happened three times and was so exactly like the sounds they had heard that they realized it had been a forerunner.”
***Mary Fraser included two remarkably similar stories in her own book. “In pioneer days,” she explained, “there were no undertakers, so coffins had to be made in the most convenient place in the neighbourhood. Many people heard in advance the assembling of the boards for the purpose, and the ghostly strokes of the hammer, as the following stories will show.”
The first of Fraser’s stories was a tale she heard first-hand. One frosty February morning in the early 1890s, two cousins drove to their uncle’s farmhouse with a truckload of boards, intending to use their uncle’s workshop to build a coffin for an old neighbour who had died in his home nearby. Before they began their work, they were greeted by their female cousin, their uncle’s daughter, who said, “I hope you are going to finish your job this time. Many a cold night I lay awake listening to that truck driving up to the door, and those boards being thrown off. Then the sawing, planing and hammering would begin, so that I was terrified to death, for I thought one of the family was going to die.” Her story was corroborated by her father, who claimed that he, too, had heard the disturbing nocturnal carpentry work, but had never told any of his family members for fear of alarming them.
In Fraser’s second story, two young sisters sat at night in their grandfather’s country home with a child whom they knew was dying. All of a sudden, the peaceful night air was rent by the sound of hammering and sawing in their grandfather’s workshop outside. A quick investigation revealed that there was nobody in the workshop, and that the girls’ grandfather was snoring softly in his bed.
“Isn’t it strange,” one of the girls remarked, “there is grandfather sleeping quietly, yet listen to his spirit working out there at the coffin that he’ll make only tomorrow.” Sure enough, the child they were watching died before morning, and the girls’ grandfather immediately set to work building a coffin, his saw and hammer making the very same sounds they had heard the previous night.
***Perhaps the eeriest auditory forerunner in Helen Creighton’s book is that which features in a story told by Reverend Grant MacDonald, a minister of the United Church in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. MacDonald’s story is set near his hometown of Fourchu, located on the southeastern shores of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, a large picturesque landmass which sits off the northern tip of the Nova Scotian peninsula. Just northeast of Fourchu is a narrow cape known as Winging Point, at which a small fishing shack once stood. Shortly after the conclusion of WWI, this shack was occupied by a man named Fred, a newcomer to Cape Breton Island. According to Reverend MacDonald, Fred frequently came into the neigbouring village of Gabarus with bloodshot eyes and threadbare nerves, claiming that he could not sleep in his shack on account of hideous shrieks he heard at night on the ocean air. The screams were the heartrending wails of men in agony and despair, and seemed to seep out of the very atmosphere.
“His stories were not taken too seriously,” Creighton wrote, “because he was an outsider and little was known of his background, but people encouraged him because he would be almost beside himself as he talked, and they were greatly entertained. Finally he could take it no longer and he moved away and nobody knew what became of him.”
Five years later, in the spring of 1924, a Canadian fishing trawler called the Mikado foundered off the shores of Winging Point. “The sea was too rough for any of the crew to be rescued,” Creighton wrote, “and the people on shore looked helplessly on as sailors and all dropped one by one from the masts to which they had been clinging, shrieking with despair. It was thought some may even have gone insane before they finally lost hold.
“The fishing shack had been unoccupied for five years, ever since Fred had left it. Now it was opened up and, as soon as weather permitted, the bodies were brought in and placed upon the floor. As they were going about their sorry business the men recalled the sounds that Fred had reported. Ever since then the people roundabout have concluded that he had heard the forerunner of this event.”
***Another account of this sort of forerunner appears in Sterling Ramsay’s book. This tale was told by Islander Jack Murchison, and is set in the hamlet of Murray Harbour, at the southeastern end of Prince Edward Island. According to the story, one cold winter night sometime in the 1940s, Jack took his mother on his one-horse sleigh to the home of a neighbour, Angus Matheson, where local ladies were gathering for a Women’s Institute Meeting. Jack’s father, Charlie Murchison, opted to stay home at the farmhouse, pleading indisposition.
At about 10:00, Charlie heard Jack’s horse violently launch himself over a snowbank in front of the house and crash down soundly on the other side. Believing that his son and wife had returned home, Charlie went to the door and shouted, “Is that you, Jack?” There was no reply.
Fearing that some accident might have taken place on the road, and that Jack’s horse had returned without him and his mother, Charlie put on his winter clothes and trudged through the snow to the barn. The horse he had heard was nowhere to be seen. Even more curiously, there were no tracks of a horse or a sleigh near the snowbank where he had heard the commotion. Baffled, Charlie went back inside and awaited the arrival of Jack and his wife, who returned shortly thereafter.
“That Sunday morning,” Ramsay wrote, “Jack Murchison had a request from a Mr. Ev Harris in Murray River. His father-in-law had died and he wanted Mr. Murchison to go down with the horses and get a rough board box at Murray River. The grave was to be dug at Caledonia.
“Mr. Murchison took his rather mischievous horse to Murray River and when he came to turn in his lane – he had the rough board box on the sleigh – the horse jumped and carried on and proceeded to jump over the snowbank in front of the house. His father who was then sitting in the house stated emphatically, ‘That’s the noise I heard Friday night.’ It seems that Mr. Murchison had, in fact, heard a forerunner of the dead man.”
***Mary Fraser included several auditory forerunner stories in her own book, Folklore of Nova Scotia. The first story she related was told to her by a man whose grandfather once routinely visited a relative who was confined to bed by a severe illness. “One night,” she wrote, “this relative seemed so near death that he remained until a very late hour. As he was returning home by the highway, walking in the middle of the road… he was almost smothered by some terrible obstruction that he could not see. With difficulty he succeeded in getting off the road, and then he stood aside and listened. He could hear distinctly the sound of passing feet, then came the clatter of wagon wheels which he could even hear going over a stone on the road. He waited, until what seemed a whole procession had gone by, then made for his home.”
Early the following morning, the man returned to the scene of his strange experience to see whether the phantom procession he had heard and felt had left any evidence of its passage in the light dusting of snow that covered the ground. None could be found.
The very next day, the sick relative died, convincing the storyteller’s grandfather that he had encountered the forerunner of his funeral.
Fraser went on to relate a similar story in which two sisters, while walking home from their grandmother’s house, found themselves caught in the midst of a phantom cavalcade which proved, to all appearances, to be a ghostly rehearsal of a funeral procession which headed down that road the very next day.
This particular forerunner also appears in the folklore of Prince Edward Island. As Sterling Ramsay explained, “Islanders may remember how, as children, they were cautioned never, under any circumstances, to walk in the middle of the road. Perhaps they are not familiar with the rather obscure origins of this superstition. In part, the warning is against being run over or trampled by the horses which frequented Island roads once upon a time; but the complete explanation goes further than just a matter of safety. It was all a matter of one of the most common manifestations of a forerunner on Prince Edward Island; namely, that the horses in a funeral procession often passed over a road several days before a man, woman, or child in the district died.”
***The most famous forerunner tale in the Canadian Maritimes is that alleged to have taken place at the Kirk of St. James, a Presbyterian church near downtown Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, on October 7th, 1853. Early that morning, so the story goes, a sea captain named Cross set out on foot from the district of Brighton, at Charlottetown’s southwestern end, bound for a particular stable to the northeast, where he expected to pick up a horse that his father had sent him from England. At about 5:30 in the morning, when he was halfway over Black Sam’s Bridge (a bygone structure located near the present-day confluence of Euston and Rochford Street, near downtown Charlottetown), a bell began to ring nearby. Captain Cross’ first instinct was that the peals were those of a ship’s bell signifying the arrival of a ship in the harbour, but when he looked towards the waterfront, there were no strange vessels in sight.
Intrigued, Cross walked in the direction of the incessant clanging and found that it emanated from the bell tower of the Kirk of St. James. As he approached the place of worship, he saw three women dressed in white gowns standing on the church threshold, the double doors of the main entrance wide open before them. The women seemed oblivious to the approaching sea captain and did not raise their eyes in his direction. A fourth white-clad figure could be seen through the slatted windows of the bell tower ringing the church bell vigorously.
Captain Cross was not the only Charlottetown resident drawn to the church by the mysterious tolling. Both the parish’s pastor, Reverend Dr. William Snodgrass, and its sexton, Davy Nicholson, knew that there was no occasion for the bell to be ringing at such an early hour. Suspecting that some impious pranksters had broken into the church and decided to give the town an early morning wakeup call, they both simultaneously leapt out of their beds when they heard the bell’s strident peals and made their ways with all haste towards the Kirk of St. James.
The younger Nicholson arrived at the church around the same time as Captain Cross. Like the latter, he clearly saw three white-robed women standing on the threshold of the church and a fourth in the belfry, laying on the bell. Before the two men had a chance to approach the women and inquire as to the reason for their untimely and unsanctioned bell ringing operation, the church doors closed on them in unison. The mysterious bell ringer also disappeared, leaving no sign of her presence but the lingering vibrations of the bell’s final peal.
Astonished, both Cross and Nicholson tried the church doors, but found them locked. At that moment, Reverend Dr. Snodgrass rounded the corner. Cross and Nicholson told the minister about the three women and the vanishing figure in the bell tower, but Snodgrass dismissed their story as preposterous, demanding that Nicholson open the church and search the belfry for the pranksters that were surely hidden there. The sexton did as requested with the assistance of Captain Cross, but found the tower empty.
Later that morning, a mail steamer called the Fairy Queen left Charlottetown Harbour bound for Pictou, Nova Scotia, on the other side of the Northumberland Strait. At the time of her departure, the Fairy Queen was said to have been in very poor condition, her rotting hull having been freshly painted in an effort to disguise its frail constitution from the eyes of discerning passengers. That afternoon, not far from her destination, the steamer was beset by a ferocious October gale which belied the reassurances of her painted façade. The Fairy Queen sank in the frigid waters of the Northumberland Strait, resulting in the drowning of four women and three men. Three of the deceased were parishioners at the Kirk of St. James, and in the wake of the disaster, many Charlottetown residents suspected that the three white-clad women seen earlier that morning, along with the mysterious bell ringing that initially struck Captain Cross as the peals of a ship’s bell, were forerunners portending the wreck of the Fairy Queen.
When Weird Darkness returns… Wilford Sweeten was found dead of food poisoning. Then across town, a pastor’s wife was found dead of food poisoning as well. And that’ when rumors already circulating in the small town of Ida, Illinois began to be confirmed – and the identities of the killers would shock people nationwide.
But first… it was Labor Day, 1980 when Cynthia Clements disappeared – it wouldn’t be until more than a month later that her body would be found. And we still don’t know who killed her. That story is up next.
STORY: THE UNSOLVED MURDER OF CYNTHIA CLEMENTS=====
Nineteen-year-old Cynthia Clements vanished on Labor Day, September 1, 1980.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that “Miss Clements was last seen inside the Li’l General Store at 6185 54th Avenue North in Kenneth City [Florida], where she had just taken a job as a night clerk. A St. Petersburg Times delivery man dropped off a load of newspapers and spoke with her briefly. The delivery man said later that nothing appeared unusual.”
At about 5:30 A.M., customers flagged down a Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputy and informed him the clerk was missing. Investigators found Cynthia’s purse still in the store, an unfinished crossword puzzle on the counter, the radio playing, and the cash drawer unopened. There appeared to be no signs of a struggle—the cashier had just…disappeared. Cynthia had no car, so she had likely been taken away by someone in a vehicle. A detective told reporters that “there is no shred of evidence to indicate that Miss Clements left the store voluntarily.”
Pinellas County spokesperson Merrill Stebbins said that Cynthia “has no criminal record. There is no suggestion she had done this kind of thing before. There’s just nothing to indicate she was anything but a personable, quiet, religious person.” Cynthia, who studied her Bible often, had written her former pastor back home to tell him she was searching for a “good” church.
Just a month earlier, the family had moved to the St. Petersburg area from Birmingham, Alabama. Her father, John, told investigators he’d worried when she told him she was taking the convenience store job, but she assured him the neighborhood was safe. “Cynthia was never involved in any drugs, any alcohol, any misfits,” said her mother, Nancy. “That’s why we know something bad happened to her, because we know her.”
Six weeks after she disappeared, on October 14, a hiker found Cynthia’s decomposed body in the woods off Bryan Dairy Road near Largo. She had been strangled. Although no semen was found on or inside her (due to the decomposed state of the corpse), cops believed she had been raped. At the time, there were no surveillance cameras in the store. Due to a lack of physical evidence or an eyewitness, the case quickly went cold.
Numerous other girls and young women had gone missing from the same area, so this case garnered a lot of local publicity. At the time, none of the cases had been solved. The Tampa Times received a letter that spoke for many. “There are…ghouls among us,” said the writer, “who wait for the cover of darkness to carry out their ghastly deeds.” He suggested that convenience stores hire two clerks for the night shift.
On October 21, Cynthia’s parents laid her to rest in Memorial Park Cemetery. The Tampa Bay Times reported that “while Pinellas County sheriff’s detectives stood behind trees watching for her killer, a young Baptist preacher prayed for the quiet 19-year-old woman and stunned survivors she left behind.” No suspicious individuals showed up for the funeral, and cops went home with no leads.
As the search for Cynthia’s killer went on, Li’l General stores offered a $2,500 reward.
Since many young women had gone missing or were murdered in various locales around St. Petersburg and Tampa during that time, investigators thought it likely that a serial killer might be responsible for some of those crimes, including that of Cynthia Clements. For instance, a career criminal named James Delano Winkles abducted and murdered at least two young women, one in 1980, the other in 1981. He kidnapped real estate agent Margo Delimon, held her for several days while he brutally raped her multiple times, and then killed her. He also snatched and murdered a dog groomer named Elizabeth Graham. Detectives questioned Winkles about Cynthia’s murder but could never find the evidence needed to confirm his involvement. The killer died while on Florida’s death row.
Fast-forward to today: her killer still has not been identified and justice seems a long way off.
From 1976 to 1983, at least 35 young women and teenaged girls were murdered inside the city of Tampa. At the time, none of the crimes had been solved. In several of the cases, investigators suspected one or more serial killers were working the area.
STORY: THE MURDERING MINISTER=====
“Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal” — that’s the inscription carved on the tombstone of a coal miner named Wilford Sweeten, who is buried in the Kirk Cemetery, just north of the small town of Ina, Illinois.
It seems a pleasant and forgiving sentiment to place on the marker of a man who was murdered. And once you know what happened to him, “solace” and “forgiveness” are not the first words that come to mind.
But Wilford was not the only victim of the two killers who identities shocked the small Southern Illinois town in 1924.
Lawrence Hight was the pastor of the Methodist Church in Ina. He had been married to his wife, Anna, for 26 years. Together, the two of them had three children. Although considered a bit on the eccentric side, he was apparently respected in the community and liked even by those who did not attend his church. This was likely why people were so shocked and surprised when gossip began to spread around town about what Reverend Hight was doing when he was not behind the pulpit.
The gossip concerned the minister and an attractive member of his church, a woman named Elsie Sweeten. The pretty young woman caught Hight’s eye shortly after she began attending Sunday services. Her husband, Wilford, was a coal miner and the father of her three sons. Elsie was acknowledged by everyone to be very beautiful and Hight was entranced by her. One local resident later testified that Hight had commented, “Mrs. Sweeten is the best-looking woman I ever saw.” He also reportedly told another minister that Elsie, “walked down the church aisle, and a power came over me that I could not resist.”
The attraction that Hight felt for the woman was apparently mutual and the two began an illicit affair. As it developed, there were stories told of clandestine trysts following prayer meetings and church services. At one point, when Hight was conducting a 10-day camp meeting in a rural area, Elsie was secreted away in a small cabin next door to his own on the campgrounds. During this time, Anna Hight, oblivious to the affair, wrote a number of affectionate letters to her husband. They were later found among her belongings during the investigation into her death.
Anna Hight may have been blind to the actions of her husband and young Elsie, but few others in town were as unaware. The relationship between the minister and a member of his flock was badly concealed and as passions grew more heated between them, more and more people began to talk.
In the early summer of 1924, the lovers decided that they could be separated no more and they began to make plans so that they could be together forever. Since divorce was out of the question, given the minister’s position in the church, they concocted a plan to murder their spouses instead.
Apparently, murder was considered less of a sin to Reverend Hight than divorce was.
Wilford Sweeten was the first to die. In confessions that she later made — and then refuted — Elsie said that Hight provided her with arsenic to use for taking her husband’s life. She fed him the poison in his food three times each day and he suffered intense agony for 12 horrible days before he finally died. The original cause of death was said to be ptomaine poisoning, supposedly traced to spoiled ice cream. Hight conducted an outstanding funeral service for Sweeten, even going as far as to boast that he had converted Sweeten to the Lord and had “saved him” while the miner was on his deathbed.
Six weeks later, Anna Hight became sick from some unknown cause. She also suffered in terrible pain before she succumbed to paralysis, and then death on September 12, 1924.
Anna’s cause of death was also believed to be from ptomaine poisoning. In her case, it was believed to be a batch of spoiled ham that had killed her.
By this time, the rumors and stories about Hight and Elsie had reached scandalous proportions. The Jefferson County coroner had finally become suspicious, and he ordered an analysis of the contents of Anna’s stomach. He also had Wilford Sweeten’s body exhumed and examined as well. The results of both tests were identical — death had come from acute arsenic poisoning.
The authorities wasted no time in arresting Reverend Hight. At first, he maintained his complete innocence, and then he changed direction, admitted his guilt, and taking full blame for both deaths. He claimed that the victims had been suffering from an illness and that he had only administered the arsenic “to put them out of their misery.” Then, Hight changed his story once again. This time, he implicated Elsie as his partner in both murders. She was arrested and then she, too, began to offer several different accounts of the crimes.
The heartless and cold-blooded murders — as well as seamy nature of the love affair — captured the attention of newspaper readers in Illinois and throughout the country. People clamored for a trial, and it was soon decided that the pair would be tried together at the Mt. Vernon courthouse for the murder of Wilford Sweeten. Despite detailed, and often confusing, confessions, both defendants pleaded not guilty. The trial that followed became a lurid sensation in southern Illinois.
The witness stand offered one shocking story after another. Many of the residents of Ina had something to say about the coal miner’s wife and her minister lover. Witnesses described how the pair arranged their romantic trysts, when and where they had met, and how Reverend Hight had purchased the arsenic.
When Elsie Sweeten took the stand, she offered a dramatic, and not entirely accurate, version of events. She claimed to have only feelings of contempt for her former minister, who was said to have repeatedly fallen asleep during her testimony.
When it came time for Hight to offer a defense, his attorney tried to portray him as insane, suffering from “pre-senile dementia.” His daughters testified that he often saw strange visions and lights and heard messages from unseen beings. They also claimed that he sometimes suffered from extreme and uncontrollable rages. One of these spells even led him to inflict a nasty bite on a mule’s nose when it angered him. Members of his church, those few who did not feel betrayed by his affair with Elsie Sweeten, stated that he would sometimes run up and down the aisles of the church laughing uncontrollably.
The prosecutor delivered a scathing attack on the minister. He scorned the insanity claim, charging that the defense wanted a “nice, pleasant stay in the asylum for Brother Hight.” He also described Elsie Sweeten as “a cold-blooded murderer… who administered dose after dose” to her devoted and clueless husband. The prosecutor had one fierce charge for the jury, which he shouted at them, “Hang them! Hang them both!”
The jury took 11 hours to reach their verdict and while they quickly concurred that both defendants were guilty, they were unable to agree on the proper sentence to impose on them. After more deliberation, they finally voted for life imprisonment for Reverend Hight and 35 years for Elsie Sweeten. An editorial that appeared in the New York Times in wake of the verdict and sentencing stated that the results illustrated a growing resistance to capital punishment because “if any murderers deserved to go to the gallows, those two did.”
Elsie was visibly upset by the verdict, but Hight shrugged and announced, “I ain’t mad at nobody.” He was taken by train to Menard Prison in Chester. As the train traveled through small towns, Hight stood near the window so the crowds that gathered to see him would be able to get a better view.
Elsie was sentenced to serve her time at the state prison in Joliet but two years later, she was able to secure a new trial after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that she should have been tried separately from Hight the first time. Despite copious amounts of damaging evidence, including her confession, the jury deliberated for five minutes before finding her not guilty. Following her release, she and her sons moved to Chicago, where she remarried and lived out the rest of her life.
Lawrence Hight was released from prison after serving 27 years of his life sentence. He returned to the Mt. Vernon area and died there in 1959, his earlier notoriety completely forgotten.
Only the solitary tombstone remains in the town of Ina as a reminder of what happened there in 1924. If you ask just about anyone you might see on the quiet streets of town, they would be as unaware of the murders committed by Lawrence Hight and Elsie Sweeten as those thousands of travelers who pass by Ina on the interstate each day.
The story of the murderous minister is a piece of history long forgotten but a dark secret that, thanks to the grave of Wilford Sweeten, will always remain.
Coming up next… can you sue a schnauzer? Can you take a cat to court? Put a Terrier on trial? Can you arrest a mule for murder? You’d be surprised how many animals have been put on trial – and for what reasons! <COMMERCIAL BREAK>
STORY: ACCUSED CRITTERS IN COURT=====
Although it may seem difficult to believe, people have accused animals of crimes and put them on trial for centuries. Possibly more surprising than the fact that people can sue animals in court is that this practice continues worldwide to this day. Medieval societies took the Greek idea of holding all living creatures and non-living objects accountable for any crimes they committed in an attempt to prevent demons from infiltrating their towns. Some believed that beasts of burden fell under the jurisdiction of man since they were owned and controlled by them – in theory. Insects, snakes, vermin, and other wilder animals were sometimes tried in church courts since only God could judge and control them. These are not cases of animals with owners who are taken to court in lieu of the creature. These are wild rats, insects, pigs, and other beasts, doing the things they are hardwired to do, facing imprisonment or the death penalty for inconveniencing humans. More horrible still, some faced trial and punishment for the wrongdoings of humans.
When people think of witches, they think of dogs. Or, they would if they knew about the two canine sorcerers accused of being in league with the devil during the 1692 Salem Witch Trials. However, neither dog was owned by or seen in the presence of a witch. The first dog was owned by the neighbor of an afflicted girl in Andover, MA. The dog was accused of trying to bewitch her and was immediately shot. When the animal expired, the minister Cotton Mathers declared it innocent. One test of being a witch involved attempting to kill the accused. If they died, they were innocent. If they defied death, they were a witch. It was an imperfect system. Another dog was said to be the victim of a villager named John Bradstreet, who was accused of “riding and tormenting the dog with his spirit.” The poor canine victim was dispatched in order to cause the alleged witch pain. Bradstreet did leave the village, though whether from fear or the death of his victim, no one knows.
In 1508, a swarm of rats tore through the barley crops of Autun, France. The Episcopalian Church issued a summons for the rats to their local court to face the charges against them. If convicted of their crimes, the rats faced excommunication from the Episcopalian Church. The lawyer appointed by the bishop to represent the rats was Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, and he took his clients’ case as seriously as any other. When the rats did not show up in court and the judge attempted to try them in absentia, de Chasseneuz argued their right to defend themselves in court. He requested a summons sent to each defendant, which the judge granted. Multiple summonses were sent to neighboring towns and displayed close to the ground so that the rats could see them. When the rats did not comply or arrive in court this time, de Chasseneuz stated that his clients feared for their lives. Dogs and cats were waiting to eat them when they left the safety of their homes to travel to court. After the judge’s order to keep dogs and cats indoors failed, the case was largely forgotten and dropped.
Bestiality was seen as a mutual crime between the human perpetrator and their animal victim, usually resulting in the death penalty for both when a guilty verdict was reached. Jacques Ferron and his donkey victim lived in France in 1750 and faced trial for that heinous crime. In a strange twist, Ferron received his punishment, but the donkey was spared due to credible character witnesses. The donkey was said to be “virtuous and well-behaved both at home and abroad and had never given occasion of scandal to [anyone].”
In Falaise, France, it was common for large numbers of pigs to roam the streets, unhindered. On January 9, 1386, one of those pigs entered a home and mauled an infant in its crib, resulting in the child’s death. The pig was swiftly arrested and imprisoned before receiving a trial in a court of law. The pig defendant was found guilty and sentenced to have its forelegs “mangled and maimed” prior to receiving the death penalty. To add further insult, the pig arrived at its execution dressed in a waistcoat, gloves, and bottoms. The executioner also wore gloves, to keep his hands clean of the pig’s death.
Basel, Switzerland, was a hotbed of witch phobia in the 13th Century due to Saint Thomas Aquinas and his influence on the Catholic Church to change doctrine and acknowledge sorcery and demons as real. One odd belief that made its way back into favor was that if a rooster laid an egg that was then incubated by a toad, the resulting offspring would be a cockatrice. This cockatrice was said to kill with just one look or breath. When a rooster laid an egg in 1474, it was immediately seized and placed on trial for its heinous crime. The public defender assigned to the rooster did a commendable job, arguing that the egg-laying was an involuntary act with no ill intent behind it. Furthermore, no injuries had occurred to anyone. The judge disagreed, sentencing the rooster to die by burning alongside its egg. Science now knows that roosters that lay eggs are actually hens with a hormonal imbalance, hopefully sparing any future misunderstandings.
Ekaterina, or Katya, the bear lived a rough life, traveling with a circus before being used as a roadside attraction at a campsite in Kazakhstan. In 2004, a boy approached Katya’s cage and threw some food at her. She grabbed the boy’s leg, causing him injuries and shock. That same year, a drunken man grabbed Katya’s paw to shake it and was mauled. When all shelters and zoos passed on Katya, she went to prison with 730 dangerous human inmates. For 15 years, Katya lived with the inmates without incident, enjoying the food they shared with her and their close companionship. The prison even commissioned a Katya statue that still stands outside. In 2019, Katya was released from prison and sent to live at a mini-zoo with another bear, Yashka, who she’s able to physically interact with, as well as multiple other animals.
Hartlepool, England, supposedly had a French ship sink off of its coast, leaving no survivors, save a monkey dressed in a military uniform. Legend says that the people of Hartlepool suspected shenanigans and accused the monkey of being a French spy during the tumultuous time of the Napoleonic Wars. The monkey stood trial but was unable to provide any information to the court. The villagers took the monkey to the town square and executed it. This is bad enough on its own, but some suspect that the “monkey” in the miniature uniform was actually a human child. Small boys worked as “powder monkeys”, priming cannons for the soldiers. Whether the residents sent a monkey or a young boy to his doom remains unclear, but the label “monkey hangers” follows the town to this day in soccer and rugby matches.
Christmas Beetles have been named in many criminal cases, infuriating judges with their audacity for centuries. In 1478, the insects also known as “cockchafers” were summoned to French court on the accusations that a witch sent them to destroy the church’s crops. The judge ordered the beetles banished and allowed them to disagree with the judgment by appearing six days later to make statements. They didn’t show up, and they didn’t leave. In 1479, the beetles faced charges of “creeping secretly in the earth” and were again banished for their crimes. The beetles continue to thrive in numbers to this day, defying the multiple court orders of the church.
A Macedonian bee farmer sought compensation from a bear who allegedly kept stealing his honey. After using flashing lights, loud “turbo-folk” music, and other ways to deter the bear, the farmer took the animal to court. In March 2008, the court found the bear guilty of honey theft and ordered it to pay 140,000 denars ($3,500) for damage to the hives. Since the bear was part of a protected species and was wild, execution was off the table, and the state had to pay the fine.
The winemakers of 16th-century France approached the church courts in 1545 with a complaint about the weevils destroying the vineyards in St. Julien. The ecclesiastical judge demurred from punishing the insects, instead telling the winemakers to repent for their own sins to drive the creatures off. Amazingly, this seemed to work. In 1587, the insects returned to St. Julien to continue the decimation of the vineyards. The church court was again involved and the trial this time spanned eight months. The defense argued that weevils were allowed to do what they were made to do – eat crops. A plea deal involving a weevil sanctuary was proposed by the mayor of St. Julien, but the last page of court records was eaten by an insect.
Thanks for listening. If you like the show, please share it with someone you know who loves the paranormal or strange stories, true crime, monsters, or unsolved mysteries like you do! You can email me anytime with your questions or comments at email@example.com. WeirdDarkness.com is also where you can find all of my social media, listen to free audiobooks I’ve narrated, visit the store for Weird Darkness t-shirts, hoodies, mugs, phone cases, and more merchandise, sign up for monthly contests, find other podcasts that I host like “Retro Radio – Old Time Radio in the Dark”, “Micro Terrors; Scary Stories for Kids”, “The Church of the Undead”, and more. WeirdDarkness.com is also where you can find the Hope in the Darkness page if you or someone you know is struggling with depression or dark thoughts. Also on the website, if you have a true paranormal or creepy tale to tell, you can click on TELL YOUR STORY. You can find all of that and more at WeirdDarkness.com.
All stories on Weird Darkness are purported to be true unless stated otherwise, and you can find links to the stories or the authors in the show notes.
“Cursed Relics And The Karma They Brought To Those Who Stole Them” by Melissa Brinks for Graveyard Shift
“The Unsolved Murder of Cynthia Clements” by Robert A. Waters for Kidnapping Murder and Mayhem
“Canada’s Harbingers of Doom” posted at Mysteries of Canada
“Accused Critters In Court” by Jodi Smith for Weird History
“The Murdering Minister” by Troy Taylor
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Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… (Hebrews 4:13) “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
And a final thought… “Encouraging someone to be entirely themselves is the loudest way to love them.” – Kalen Dion
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.