“JFK’S MISSING BRAIN” and More Strange True Stories! #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: Born into wealth, then orphaned, then forced to marry at the age of 14, losing all control of her money and future, Katherine Ferrers did what any teenaged girl in her position would do – she became a ruthless highway robber that terrorized local villages. (Female Highwayman: The Wicked Lady of the 1600s) *** People in Gloucester, Massachusetts were reporting very bizarre things in the summer of 1692. They heard the march of troops despite the war having ended twenty years earlier. They saw what they claimed was a human scalp and the shape of a Native America’s bow when looking at the face of the moon. But that was only the appetizer of what would come that horrifying summer of paranormal activity. (The Spectre Leaguers of Gloucester) *** Seeing a deceased loved one, a soft glowing light, a warm feeling of comfort and love… people have reported seeing many of these types of things when near death. And while some might want to blame it on the brain’s neurons misfiring or even rapid-firing towards the end of someone’s life, how does that explain that the majority of these reports are so similar? (Deathbed Visions) *** In 1849, young Cornelius Ahern was only nineteen years old, and his chosen occupation was pickpocketing. It’s likely we never would’ve heard about him except for the fact that he once attempted – and failed – to pick the pocket of one particular writer who would one day become famous. Charles Dickens. (The Pickpocket and Charles Dickens) *** The assassination of President John F. Kennedy has been surrounded by controversy and conspiracy theories since the day of his death. The magic bullet theory, Lee Harvey Oswald was or was not the lone gunman, was there someone in the grassy knoll, was their a government conspiracy to have Kennedy killed? But there’s another mystery most documentaries and books don’t cover – what about Kennedy’s missing brain? (JFK’s Missing Brain) *** (Originally aired December 01, 2020)
SOURCES AND REFERENCES FROM THE EPISODE…
BOOK: “Death Bed Visions” by William Barrett: https://amzn.to/36ttn7t
BOOK: “At The Hour of Death” Dr. Karlis Osis: https://amzn.to/3oeyvlY
BOOK: “One Last Hug Before I Go: The Mystery and Meaning of Death Bed Visions,” by Carla Wills-Brandon: https://amzn.to/2VnQ3zo
BOOK: “Parting Visions” by Melvin Morse: https://amzn.to/3my1ws8
“JFK’s Missing Brain” by Doug MacGowan for Historic Mysteries: https://tinyurl.com/yxfqhlkl
“Female Highwayman: The Wicked Lady of the 1600s” by Gemma Hollman for Just History Posts: https://tinyurl.com/y43sxm2t
“The Spectre Leaguers of Gloucester” by Charles M. Skinner, edited by Kathy Weister for Legends of America:https://tinyurl.com/y6sh78ca
“Deathbed Visions” by Stephen Wagner for Live About: https://tinyurl.com/yygv27vx
“The Pickpocket and Charles Dickens” by William Ellis-Rees for London Overlooked: https://tinyurl.com/y28w5pgx
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Paranormality Magazine: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/paranormalitymag
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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…
Born into wealth, then orphaned, then forced to marry at the age of 14, losing all control of her money and future, Katherine Ferrers did what any teenaged girl in her position would do – she became a ruthless highway robber that terrorized local villages. (Female Highwayman: The Wicked Lady of the 1600s)
People in Gloucester, Massachusetts were reporting very bizarre things in the summer of 1692. They heard the march of troops despite the war having ended twenty years earlier. They saw what they claimed was a human scalp and the shape of a Native America’s bow when looking at the face of the moon. But that was only the appetizer of what would come that horrifying summer of paranormal activity. (The Spectre Leaguers of Gloucester)
Seeing a deceased loved one, a soft glowing light, a warm feeling of comfort and love… people have reported seeing many of these types of things when near death. And while some might want to blame it on the brain’s neurons misfiring or even rapid-firing towards the end of someone’s life, how does that explain that the majority of these reports are so similar? (Deathbed Visions)
In 1849, young Cornelius Ahern was only nineteen years old, and his chosen occupation was pickpocketing. It’s likely we never would’ve heard about him except for the fact that he once attempted – and failed – to pick the pocket of one particular writer who would one day become famous. Charles Dickens. (The Pickpocket and Charles Dickens)
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy has been surrounded by controversy and conspiracy theories since the day of his death. The magic bullet theory, Lee Harvey Oswald was or was not the lone gunman, was there someone in the grassy knoll, was their a government conspiracy to have Kennedy killed? But there’s another mystery most documentaries and books don’t cover – what about Kennedy’s missing brain? (JFK’s Missing Brain)
If you’re new here, welcome to the show! While you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com for merchandise, to visit sponsors you hear about during the show, sign up for my newsletter, enter contests, 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: JFK’S MISSING BRAIN=====
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy has been surrounded by controversy and conspiracy theories since the day of his death. Most everyone agrees that JFK died on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. And that is about all historians and theorists agree on. Various people and committees have debated for decades about fundamental questions such as how many shooters were involved, why the President’s route was changed at the last minute, the political leanings of the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, and the reason Jack Ruby killed Oswald. But what about JFK’s brain? Its mind-boggling disappearance is yet another great mystery surrounding the assassination.
The American public now seems to believe that we do not know everything about the assassination. The Warren Commission came to the conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin and there were no others involved. At that time, in 1964, surveys seemed to indicate that the majority of Americans believed the Commission’s findings. But not anymore.
A 1998 CBS News investigation showed that 76% of Americans believed there has been significant information withheld that might prove there was some kind of conspiracy that took place. Later, in 2013, 59% of respondents to a poll stated that they thought that Oswald was not the only assassin of JFK. That same year a Gallup Poll showed that the number of people who believed that some kind of conspiracy was involved was more than 60%.
Possibly the most bizarre element in an admittedly bizarre series of events took place both at and after JFK’s official autopsy. In 1978, a government organization called the House Assassination Committee published findings that stated that JFK’s brain was missing. Some of the Committee called for a thorough investigation. How could something like JFK’s brain go missing? To delve further, we need to go back to the facts that we know about the movements of his brain after the assassination.
First off, we know that the second bullet went through Kennedy’s skull. At that point, much brain matter ejected and splattered around the car in which he was riding. Doctors removed the remaining part of JFK’s brain during the autopsy.
This is where this mystery starts. Some witnesses that were supposedly at the hospital state that JFK’s wife, Jackie, was seen holding a part of her husband’s brain. But it is not known what eventually happened to it. During the course of the autopsy, doctor’s removed the brain and put it into a metal box. Subsequently, the Secret Service stashed the box in the White House. In 1965, for reasons not fully understood, JFK’s brother, Robert, ordered the removal of JFK’s brain from the White House and he had it put into the National Archives. But the following year an inventory of the Archives’ materials showed that JFK’s brain was missing.
An investigation was started and although approximately 40 people were interrogated, the brain section was not to be found. Hence, the mystery continued. Subsequent searches proved fruitless.
But a recent book by historian James L. Swanson claims to know the truth. According to Swanson, JFK’s brain was actually stolen by JFK’s brother Robert in an attempt to conceal the nature of the President’s poor health and his drug history. Swanson said that JFK was on multiple medications for pain and there was a possibility that the brain could provide evidence that Oswald was not the sole shooter. So Robert Kennedy removed the brain matter from the National Archives so that tests on it could not point to dangerous drug use or conflicts in the official “facts” of the assassination. Swanson says that his brain tissue would probably not prove anything about JFK’s medical conditions or drug use. Swanson claims that JFK’s brain was not buried with his body, but says he does not know the brain’s current location.
Did someone move it from the Archives? Was it destroyed? Could someone have buried it apart from his body? The missing brain material removed during the autopsy is just one more topic that keeps assassination conspiracy theorists eager to question the facts surrounding one of the major international events of the 20th century.
STORY: FEMALE HIGHWAYMAN; THE WICKED LADY OF THE 1600S==========
If you happen to pass through Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire, you might notice a pub doing business under the name “Wicked Lady”. The pub is named after the legend of one known by the same name – a female highway robber who terrorized the area 400 years ago.
According to legend, the Wicked Lady was a local noblewoman named Katherine Ferrers who, under the cover of night, dressed as a man and robbed and terrorized locals. Katherine was born in 1634 to a family of fervent Protestants who had profited from the favor of Henry VIII and Edward VI. The family was granted extensive properties in Hertfordshire, including several manor houses. However, Katherine’s father, Knighton Ferrers, died in 1640, shortly followed by her grandfather. Katherine was the sole heir to her family’s fortune, as her only brother had died young. This meant that at the age of 6, Katherine became an heiress to a great fortune. Whilst her mother quickly remarried, she also died two years later after the family joined King Charles I at his base in Oxford upon the outbreak of the Civil War. Several years into the Civil War, her stepfather was taken prisoner, resulting in Katherine being made a ward of the court. She was sent to live with her stepfather’s sister. The Fanshawe family who took her into their care were also committed royalists, and under Parliamentary rule they had their assets cut – assets which were already drained by contributing to the Royalist cause.
This meant that Katherine was in a precarious position – with no family of her own around her, she was married at the age of 14 to her stepfather’s nephew, who was only 16 himself, in a bid to combine the two families’ fortunes. It didn’t take long for her husband, who was now in control of her assets under the laws of the time, to sell off many of her properties. One such property was Markyate Cell, an old priory which had been converted into a house in the sixteenth century.
Under the legend of the Wicked Lady, it is sometime during this period that Katherine decided to take up the mantle of highway robber – perhaps as a way to rebuild her family’s lost fortune, or as a way to regain some autonomy after years of being passed around for her wealth. As her husband was absent a lot, it was easy for her to lead her double life. It wasn’t unusual during this period for Royalist supporters to turn to highway robbery, as many had been left destitute after the Civil War just as Katherine and the Fanshawes were. It wasn’t just highway robbery that has been attributed to Katherine, with the burning of houses, slaughtering of livestock, and even the killing of a constable being blamed on her.
Katherine died early, at the age of 26, in 1660. As we have no records for the cause of Katherine’s death, the legend has seized the opportunity to create a dramatic end for her. The persistent explanation for her death is that she was shot during a robbery gone wrong whilst she was on Nomansland Common in Wheathampstead (right next to where the modern-day pub bearing her name stands). The legend said that she died of her wounds whilst she was trying to ride back to her old family’s property at Markyate Cell which had a secret staircase entry. Her body was found by her servants, still wearing her male highwayman clothes, and they carried her home and buried her.
In reality, whilst an excellent story, there is not much evidence to prove its truth. The upheaval of robbery and damage to property in the area at the time could be blamed on bands of brigands or the unrest during the Civil War, and there is no contemporary reference to Katherine’s misdeeds. However, the legend persisted in local memory, and it was fueled further in the 1800s when a secret chamber was discovered by workmen at Markyate Cell behind a false wall next to a chimney stack. The unknown circumstances of Katherine’s death further lends questions to how she died, particularly as she was buried at St Mary’s Church in Ware, and not in the Fanshawe family vault as may have been expected. Skepticism arises when looking at the geography of her supposed death; Nomansland is not actually particularly close to the Markyate Cell manor, and the property had been sold by her husband’s family 5 years prior to her death.
There were some confirmed female highway robbers during the seventeenth century, and many who worked as ordinary robbers – often paired with a man, the woman would lure men into alleys with the promise of sex, where their male partner would knock-out the man and they would rob him. This was known as ‘buttock-and-file’.
Female highwaymen do appear frequently in literature of the following century, but these accounts are often sexualized and demonstrate male discomfort at the idea of powerful, independent women. In the literature, the women are either emphatically un-womanly, or ultimately are brought back under control by a man. Moll Cutpurse, featured in the second volume of Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714), is written in a fashion that constantly highlights her lack of feminine qualities – she “would fight with boys and courageously beat them” and, worst of all, “She had a natural abhorrence to the tending of children, to whom she ever had an averseness in her mind equal to the sterility and barrenness in her womb, never (to our best information) being made a mother.” Other women who appear in ballads include one featured in “The Female Frollick” – she would rob members of unpopular groups such as Quakers, thus satirizing these men’s lack of masculinity and symbolic impotence against a woman. Ultimately, though, the female highway robber comes up against a ‘real’ man, when she accidentally attempts to rob a fellow highwayman; he overpowers her, has his way with her, and thus she is brought back to her station as submissive woman.
Whilst female highwaymen did appear in popular literature, in reality there are very few confirmed cases of actual female highway robbers. In 1735, a man named Beattie published a piece in The Gentleman’s Magazine on female highwaymen, but even he only cites one case:
“A Butcher was Robb’d in a very Gallant Manner by a Woman well mounted on Side Saddle, &c. near Rumford in Essex. She presented a Pistol to him, and demanded his Money; he being amazed at her Behaviour told her, he did not know what she meant; when a Gentleman coming up, told him he was a Brute to deny the Lady’s request, and if he did not gratify her Desire immediately, he would Shoot him thro’ the Head; so he gave her his Watch and 6 Guineas.”
Even in this case, it appears that the woman may have been acting as a partner to a male highwayman, who threatens the gentleman.
One case of a female highwayman who did meet a grisly end in the seventeenth century was a woman named Joan Bracey. Her story is told in the Newgate Calendar, a biographical book about criminals whose executions had been announced in the original Newgate Calendar, a bulletin of executions.
The Calendar tells us that Joan was the daughter of a wealthy farmer in Northamptonshire who met a man named Edward Bracey around 1680. Edward’s initial plan was to seduce Joan and then extract a large sum of money from her father for a marriage portion (as marriage was a common consequence of sex outside of wedlock during this time) before abandoning both Joan and her father. However, Joan was wily herself, and she agreed to rob her own father with Edward – the pair then travelled together, passing as husband and wife, and frequently robbed together on the highway. They were successful for four years and amassed a good fortune but the fear of retribution made them decide to quit highway robbery and try to build a legitimate business as a way to live the rest of their lives in comfort. However, the inn they purchased quickly became a centre of scandal after they continually robbed patrons and so they had to abandon it and return to their old ways.
One rich young gentleman who had spent lots of money at their inn was the heir to an estate of around a hundred pounds a year (a significant sum of money at the time), and so they decided to extort the young man for the debts he still owed their inn. They blackmailed the young man to join Edward in robbing a rich tradesman who they knew was coming to Bristol with a large sum of money. The men were successful, and managed to steal more than a hundred pounds. After further extortion of the young gentlemen, the pair made off with £1400, and continued to rob people on the highway, with Joan dressing in men’s clothes. Unfortunately for the couple, one robbery on the highway went wrong and Joan was caught and sent to Nottingham Jail. In 1685, she was executed at the age of 29. Edward managed to escape when Joan got caught, and hid for a while, but one day whilst visiting an inn he was recognised by someone he had previously robbed. He was chased out of the inn by armed men where he managed to grab a horse from the stable to try and escape. Nonetheless, a few days later he was caught by some men and shot when he tried to escape by horse again.
So, whilst female highwaymen may not have been very prevalent, they certainly captured popular imagination both at the time and still today; the story of Katherine Ferrers was made into a film in 1945, which elaborated upon her legend. Whilst some exist in literature, some in legend, there certainly were some around, although most – if not all – probably acted as partners to male robbers. It is easy to see how they still capture our attention today with the idea of women who led double lives, as meek, repressed women of their time during the day, but at night reclaim their independence to assert their power over defenseless men.
Coming up… People in Gloucester, Massachusetts were reporting very bizarre things in the summer of 1692. They heard the march of troops despite the war having ended twenty years earlier. They saw what they claimed was a human scalp and the shape of a Native America’s bow when looking at the face of the moon. But that was only the appetizer of what would come that horrifying summer of paranormal activity. (The Spectre Leaguers of Gloucester)
Plus… seeing a deceased loved one, a soft glowing light, a warm feeling of comfort and love… people have reported seeing many of these types of things when near death. And while some might want to blame it on the brain’s neurons misfiring or even rapid-firing towards the end of someone’s life, how does that explain that the majority of these reports are so similar? (Deathbed Visions) These stories, and more, when Weird Darkness returns.
STORY: THE SPECTRE LEAGUERS OF GLOUCESTER=====
Strange things were reported in Gloucester, Massachusetts in the summer of 1692. Though King Philip’s War had occurred two decades previously, the march of men was heard in its Gloucester streets and an Indian bow and scalp were seen on the face of the moon, while the boom of cannon and roll of drums were heard at Malden and the windows of Plymouth rattled to the passage of unseen horsemen. But, the strangest thing was the arrival on Cape Ann of a force of French and Indians that never could be caught, killed, or crippled, though two regiments were hurried into Gloucester and battled with them for a fortnight. Thus, the rumor went around that these were not an enemy of flesh and blood; but, devils who hoped to work a moral perversion of the colony. From 1692, when they appeared, until the Salem witchcraft hysteria ended, Cape Ann was under military and spiritual guard against “the spectre leaguers.”
Another version of the episode, based on sworn evidence, said that Ebenezer Babson, returning late on a summer night, saw two men run from his door and vanish into a field. His family denied that visitors had called, so he gave chase, for he believed the men to have a mischievous intention. As he left the threshold they sprang from behind a log, one saying to the other, “The master of the house is now come, else we might have taken the house,” and again they disappeared in a swamp. Babson woke the guard, and on entering the quarters of the garrison, the sound of many feet was heard without. But, when the doors were flung open, only the two men were visible and they were retreating. The next evening, the yeoman was chased by these elusive gentry, who were believed to be scouts of the enemy, for they wore white breeches and waistcoats and carried bright guns.
For several nights they appeared, and on the 4th of July, a half a dozen of them were seen so plainly that the soldiers made a sally, Babson bringing three of “ye unaccountable troublers” to the ground with a single shot, and getting a response in kind, for a bullet hissed by his ear and buried itself in a tree. When the company approached the place where lay the victims of that remarkable shot; behold, they arose and scampered away as blithely as if naught had happened to them. One of the trio was cornered and shot anew, but, when they would pick him up, he melted into air. There was fierce jabbering in an unknown tongue, through all the swamp, and by the time the garrison had returned, the fellows were skulking in the shrubbery again. A man named Richard Dolliver, afterward, came upon eleven of them engaged in incantations and scattered them with a gunshot; but, they would be not down. Instead, they lurked about the cape until terror fell on all the people, remaining for “the best part of a month together,” so it was deemed that “Satan had set ambushments against the good people of Gloucester, with demons in the shape of armed Indians and Frenchmen.”
Stones were thrown, barns were beaten with clubs, the marching of unseen hosts was heard after dark, and the mockers grew so bold that they ventured close to the redoubtable Ebenezer Babson, who gazed scornfully down the barrel of his gun, and laid a charm on the weapon, so that, no matter how often he snapped it at them, it flashed in the pan. Neighboring garrisons were summoned, but, all battling with goblins was fruitless. One night, a dark and hostile throng emerged from the wood and moved toward the blockhouse, where 20 musketeers were keeping guard. “If you be ghosts or devils I will foil you,” cried the captain, and tearing a silver button from his doublet he rammed it into his gun and fired on the advancing host. Even as the smoke of his musket was blown on the wind, so did the beleaguering army vanish, the silver bullet proving that they were not of humankind. The night was wearing on when a cry went out that the devils were coming again. Arms were laid aside this time, and the watchers sank to their knees in prayer. Directly after the name of God was uttered, the marching ceased and heaven rang with the howls of the angry fiends. Never again were leaguers seen in Gloucester.
STORY: DEATHBED VISIONS=====
Close to the moment of death, apparitions of deceased friends and loved ones appear to escort the dying to the other side. Such deathbed visions are not just the stuff of stories and movies. They are, in fact, more common than you might think and are surprisingly similar across nationalities, religions, and cultures. Instances of these unexplained visions have been recorded throughout history and stand as one of the most compelling proofs of life after death.
Anecdotes of deathbed visions have appeared in literature and biographies throughout the ages, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the subject received scientific study. One of the first to examine the subject seriously was Sir William Barrett, a Professor of Physics at the Royal College of Science in Dublin. In 1926 he published a summation of his findings in a book titled “Death Bed Visions” (which I’ve linked to in the show notes). In the many cases he studied, he discovered some interesting aspects of the experience that are not easily explained:
* It was not uncommon for the dying people who saw these visions to identify friends and relatives who they thought were still living. But in each case, according to Barrett, it was later discovered that these people were dead. (Remember, communications then weren’t what they are today, and it might take weeks or even months to learn that a friend or a loved one had died.)
* Barrett found it curious that children quite often expressed surprise that the “angels” they saw in their dying moments did not have wings. If the deathbed vision is just a hallucination, wouldn’t a child see an angel as it is most often depicted in art and literature—with large, white wings?
More extensive research into these mysterious visions was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s by Dr. Karlis Osis of the American Society for Psychical Research. In this research, and for a book he published in 1977 titled “At the Hour of Death,” (which I’ll link to in the show notes), Osis considered thousands of case studies and interviewed more than 1,000 doctors, nurses, and others who attended the dying. The work found some fascinating consistencies:
* Very often, the friends and relatives seen in these visions express directly that they have come to help take them away.
* The dying person is reassured by the experience and expresses great happiness with the vision. Contrast this with the confusion or fear that a non-dying person would experience at seeing a “ghost.” The dying also seem quite willing to go with these apparitions.
* The dying person’s mood—even state of health—seems to change. During these visions, a once depressed or pain-riddled person is overcome with elation and momentarily relieved of pain until death strikes.
* The people having these experiences do not seem to be hallucinating or to be in an altered state of consciousness; rather, they appear to be quite aware of their real surroundings and conditions.
* Whether or not the dying person believes in an afterlife is irrelevant; the experience and reactions are the same.
How many people have deathbed visions? This is unknown since only about 10 percent of dying people are conscious shortly before their deaths. But of this 10 percent, it is estimated, between 50 and 60 percent of them experience these visions. The visions only seem to last about five minutes and are seen mostly by people who approach death gradually, such as those suffering from life-threatening injuries or terminal illnesses.
So what are deathbed visions? How can they be explained? Are they hallucinations produced by dying brains? Delusions produced by drugs in the systems of the patients? Or could the visions of spirits be exactly what they appear to be: a welcome committee of deceased loved ones who have come to ease the transition to life on another plane of existence?
Carla Wills-Brandon attempts to answer these questions in her book, “One Last Hug Before I Go: The Mystery and Meaning of Death Bed Visions,” which includes many modern-day accounts. (I’ll link to her book on Amazon in the show notes.)
Could they be creations of the dying brain—a kind of self-induced sedative to ease the dying process? Although this is a theory offered by many in the scientific community, Wills-Brandon doesn’t agree. “The visitors in the visions were often deceased relatives who came to offer support to the dying person,” she writes. “In some situations, the dying did not know these visitors were already dead.” In other words, why would the dying brain only produce visions of people who are dead, whether the dying person knew they were dead or not?
And what about the effects of medication? “Many of the individuals who have these visions are not on medications and are very coherent,” writes Wills-Brandon. “Those who are on medications also report these visions, but the visions are similar to those who are not on medications.”
We may never know whether these experiences are truly paranormal—that is until we too pass from this life. But there is one aspect of some deathbed visions that is most difficult to explain and lends most credence to the idea that they are actual visitations of spirits from “the other side.” On rare occasions, the spirit entities are seen not only by the dying patient, but also by the friends, relatives, and others in attendance!
According to one case documented in the February 1904 edition of Journal of the Society for Psychic Research, a deathbed apparition was seen by a dying woman, Harriet Pearson, and by three relatives who were in the room. Two witnesses in attendance of a dying young boy independently claimed to see the spirit of his mother at his bedside.
Whether the deathbed visions phenomenon is real or not, the experience is very often beneficial for the people involved. In his book “Parting Visions,” Melvin Morse writes that visions of a spiritual nature can empower dying patients, making them realize that they have something to share with others. (I’ll link to his book in the show notes as well.) He says these visions dramatically lessen or completely remove the fear of dying in the patients and are enormously healing to the relatives.
Carla Wills-Brandon believes that deathbed visions can help change our overall attitude about death. “Many people today fear their own death and have difficulty handling the passing of loved ones,” she says. “If we can recognize that death is nothing to fear, perhaps we will be able to live life more fully. Knowing that death is not the end might resolve some of our fear-based societal difficulties.”
When Weird Darkness returns… In 1849, young Cornelius Ahern was only nineteen years old, and his chosen occupation was pickpocketing. It’s likely we never would’ve heard about him except for the fact that he once attempted – and failed – to pick the pocket of one particular writer who would one day become famous. Charles Dickens. His story is up next!
STORY: THE PICKPOCKET AND CHARLES DICKENS=====
On a chilly March evening in 1849 a young man aged nineteen was making his way along the Edgware Road in Marylebone. He was small, and of medium build. He had dark hair and an oval face with a fresh complexion. His eyes were grey, and they were peering keenly through the dark. His name was Cornelius Ahern, and he was a pickpocket.
Ahead of him Ahern spotted two gentlemen, who were strolling along arm in arm, deep in conversation. One was portly, with corkscrew curls and a double chin, and past the first flush of youth. His companion, wearing an expensive hat and coat, carried less weight, and was the right side of forty. Creeping up and putting his hand in a pocket of the older gentleman’s coat, Ahern got the fright of his life when his victim spun round and clouted him on the head with a walking stick. Swearing at his assailant, the young thief turned tail and fled.
Although unnerved by the sight of a gathering mob, the two gentlemen gave chase, and with the help of a police constable on plain-clothes duty caught up with Ahern in Bell Street. They then frog-marched him kicking violently and swearing to the police station at 86 Marylebone High Street, where they formally identified themselves. The older of the two—Ahern’s victim—was Mark Lemon. He was the editor of Punch magazine. His younger companion was Charles Dickens. He was a writer.
At the police station Dickens, who had once written a piece on the Middlesex House of Correction at Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell, spoke to Ahern. “Have you not been in prison before?” “No, never,” replied Ahern, who had in fact been locked up in one penitentiary or another on twenty previous occasions. The constable gave him a knowing nudge. “What are you talking about?” Ahern again protested, although he conceded that he had once served a two-month sentence. One presumes that he felt that this did not count.
Ahern’s defiance did not end there. When he came before the magistrate, and was asked to give his version of events, he explained that he had simply been walking behind the two gentlemen, quickly, but with nothing unlawful in mind. They had stopped so suddenly that he had bumped into them, at which they had turned and struck him. When he had protested they had struck him again. He had then run off, pursued by cries of “Stop thief!”.
At this point Dickens said again that he thought that he had seen the young man in the House of Correction, in reply to which Ahern said that in that case he, Dickens, must have been in prison himself. In fact, he went on, he knew both the gentlemen well as members of the swell mob. And he added—to the obvious amusement of the court—that they got their living by buying stolen goods.
“And I recollect him at the prison”—Ahern was pointing at Dickens—“where he was put in for six months, while I was there for only two.”
The magistrate handed down a sentence of three months in Coldbath Fields with hard labour. He had been unimpressed by the attempt to discredit the two eminent men of letters, and he made it clear that the young pickpocket had only avoided a high court trial, with the possibility of transportation, by failing to find anything in Lemon’s pocket.
And so Cornelius Ahern was taken away in a police van to the House of Correction. He had been born into a Catholic family in about 1830 in Ratcliffe Highway, the road running from Shadwell to Limehouse in the East End of London. His mother, Margaret, who was in her mid-thirties when he was born, came from Ireland. Nothing is known about Cornelius’s father, beyond the fact that he had already died when the 1851 census was taken. At that time Margaret was living in Burying Ground Passage off Marylebone High Street, where she was the domestic servant of a bricklayer’s labourer, who was also from Ireland. Cornelius too was a labourer, although at one time or another he described himself more precisely as a plasterer or a mason. In prison records his degree of instruction—his education—was classified “imperfect”.
By a curious coincidence Dickens had explored the relationship between illiteracy and criminality in the course of his prison visits. In 1846, in a letter published in The Daily News, he commented on the sight of male prisoners in the House of Correction being taught to read: “The contrast of this labour in the men, with the less blunted quickness of the boys; the latent shame and sense of degradation struggling through their dull attempts at infant lessons; and the universal eagerness to learn, impress me, in this passing retrospect, more painfully than I can tell.”
But he was less generous in his depiction of a juvenile pickpocket being sentenced at the Old Bailey to transportation, which appeared in Sketches by Boz. The thirteen-year-old boy tries to argue his way out of trouble, but his arguments are disingenuous, and his tears are a sham.
Like the boy in Boz, and indeed like the “dodger” in Oliver Twist, Ahern had started his criminal career at an early age. His repertoire was decidedly varied, and by the time of the Mark Lemon affair he had been charged not only with picking pockets but also with stealing from gardens, assaulting the police, passing counterfeit money and—on a darker note—mugging children. However, he was not as artful as the fictional Jack Dawkins, and only weeks after serving time for his botched attempt at picking Lemon’s pocket—and we are assuming that Lemon was telling the truth about the incident—he was brought before the Marylebone magistrate again.
But this time he was committed for trial at the Middlesex Sessions because there was material evidence of a crime, namely a two-shilling silk handkerchief. The victim was the remarkably named Bulkley John Mackworth Praed—a first-class cricketer, and member of the Marylebone Cricket Club—who had been walking along Great Cumberland Street with his wife when he felt what he called “a slight twitch” at his pocket. Catching Ahern trying to hide the stolen handkerchief, he had dragged him into a baker’s shop, where he had kept watch over him until a policeman arrived. Once again Ahern had his own version of events. He had seen a handkerchief fall out of Praed’s pocket, and, while attempting to return it to its rightful owner, had been rounded on. To be accused of stealing the handkerchief—“prigging the wipe”—was a travesty of justice.
But Ahern’s notoriety went before him, and on the 21st of August the Clerkenwell court, deciding that enough was enough, sentenced him to be transported for ten years.
He was held in Coldbath Fields until he was transferred to Millbank at the end of November, where he remained for nine months. From Millbank he went first to Portland in Dorset, and then to the Sterling Castle, a convict hulk at Portsmouth. By the end of 1851 he had been moved to Dartmoor. Finally, in the autumn of 1852, he was put on board the Dudbrook at Plymouth with fifty-three other convicts. Australia now loomed.
The Dudbrook, a 601-ton barque, had already collected convicts from the hulks at Woolwich and from the prisons at Portsmouth, Portland and Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight. In total she carried two hundred and twenty-nine convicts. She sailed on the 9th of November, and after a voyage of seventy-seven days reached Fremantle in Western Australia on the 2nd of February in the year 1853. And there Cornelius Ahern disappeared from sight. We know that he had a ticket of leave—possibly granted for his record of good behaviour in the months prior to departure—which gave him a degree of freedom of movement. But where he went, what he did, and what ultimately became of him remain a mystery. After all, Australia is a pretty big place.
He disappeared from the lives of Mark Lemon and Charles Dickens, too. No doubt they would have said that the young ne’er-do-well had got his just deserts. One wonders, though, what the man who railed against social injustice would have said if he had seen the forlorn Ahern on board the Dudbrook. He was still only twenty-three years old, and oval of face, and fresh of complexion. His fellow-passengers were a rough lot, their bodies bearing witness to their crimes, but also to their deprivations. One man had a skin deeply pitted with small pox. Another had scars running across his nose and under his chin. A third had lost the three middle fingers of his left hand. Ahern had but a tattoo of a heart on his right arm. Why does a man have a tattoo of a heart? He was unmarried. Maybe it reminded him of a girl he had once known. Or of his mother, Margaret, who having lost a husband had now lost a son.
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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.
“JFK’s Missing Brain” by Doug MacGowan for Historic Mysteries
“Female Highwayman: The Wicked Lady of the 1600s” by Gemma Hollman for Just History Posts
“The Spectre Leaguers of Gloucester” by Charles M. Skinner, edited by Kathy Weister for Legends of America
“Deathbed Visions” by Stephen Wagner for Live About
“The Pickpocket and Charles Dickens” by William Ellis-Rees for London Overlooked
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Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Matthew 6:21
And a final thought… “No matter how bad something may seem, there are always, always, many things to be grateful for.” – Unknown
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.