“MEL’S HOLE, MOTHMAN IN CHICAGO, A TIME-TRAVELING TOMB, GHOST SOLVES HER OWN MURDER” #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS WEEKEND ARCHIVE EPISODE (previously aired December 10, 2018): Elva Heaster was dead – but that didn’t stop her ghost from solving the murder. In Stephen King’s “Pet Semetery”, beloved family pets could come back from the dead; in Washington there is a hole that some say brings animals back to life – for real. In the middle of the Brompton Cemetery grounds, shrouded by trees stands a mausoleum… and what some believe is a time machine. The Mothman is apparently no longer bound to Point Pleasant, West Virginia – in 2017 he appeared 55 times in Chicago.
STORY SOURCES AND MUSIC CREDITS…
(Over time links may become invalid, disappear, or have different content. I always make sure to give authors credit for the material I use whenever possible. If I somehow overlooked doing so for a story, or if a credit is incorrect, please let me know and I will rectify it in the show notes immediately.)
“The Ghost Who Helped Solve Her Own Murder”: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/43jcvpe6
“Mel’s Hole Is A Supernatural Infinite Pit That Revives Animals From The Dead And Remains A Mystery”:https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/1xpq30ql
“55 Mothman Sightings In Chicago”: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/y36yqwg3
“The Legend of London’s Time-Traveling Tomb”: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/7pgczqce
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GHOST SOLVED MURDER
One January afternoon in 1897, Erasmus (aka Edward) Shue, a blacksmith, sent his neighbor’s young boy to see if Elva, Shue’s wife of three months, needed anything from the market. When the neighbor boy walked through the front door of the Shues’ rural Greenbrier County, West Virginia, log house, he found Elva’s lifeless body at the foot of the stairs. The boy stood for a moment looking at the woman, not knowing what to make of the scene. Her body was stretched out straight with her legs together. One arm was at her side and the other rested across her chest. Her head was tilted to one side.
At first he thought that the woman was simply asleep on the floor. He stepped toward her, quietly calling, “Mrs. Shue?” When she didn’t respond, he panicked and bolted from the house. He told his mother what he had found and she summoned the local doctor and coroner, George W. Knapp.
Knapp didn’t get to the Shues’ house for almost an hour. By the time he arrived, Shue had already gotten home, carried his wife’s body up to the bedroom, washed and dressed her, and laid her out on the bed. He’d prepared her body for burial in a high-necked dress with a stiff collar and placed a veil over her face. Knapp went about examining the body, Shue cradling his wife’s head and crying the whole while. When Knapp attempted to examine Elva’s neck and head, Shue became agitated. Knapp didn’t want to provoke him any further, so he left. He’d found nothing amiss with the body parts he had examined and had also been treating Elva for a few weeks prior, so he listed the cause of death as “everlasting faint” and then changed it to “complications from pregnancy.”
Elva’s body was taken to her childhood home of Little Sewell Mountain and buried, but not before a bizarre funeral where her widower acted erratically. He paced by the casket, fiddling with Elva’s head and neck. In addition to the collar and the veil, he covered her head and neck with a scarf. It didn’t match her burial dress, but Shue insisted that it was her favorite and that she would have wanted to be buried in it. He also propped her head up, first with a pillow and then a rolled up cloth. It was certainly strange, but most guests likely chalked it up to the grieving process. Shue was generally liked and regarded without suspicion by everyone in town.
Everyone, that is, except Mary Jane Heaster, Elva’s mother. She had never liked Shue, and even without evidence, she was convinced that he had murdered her daughter. If only Elva could tell her what happened, she thought. She decided to pray for Elva to somehow come back from the dead and reveal the truth about her death. She prayed every evening for weeks, until finally her prayer was answered.
Heaster claimed her daughter appeared to her in a dream four nights in a row to tell her story. Supposedly, the spirit appeared first as a bright light, gradually taking a human form and filling the room with a chill. Elva’s ghost confessed to her mother that Shue cruelly abused her, and one night attacked her in a rage when he thought that she hadn’t made any meat for his dinner. He had broken her neck, the ghost said as it turned its head completely around. Then the ghost turned and walked away, disappearing into the night while staring back at her mother.
Heaster went to the local prosecutor, John Preston, and spent the afternoon at his office trying to get him to reopen the case. Whether Preston believed her story about the ghost, we don’t know, but Heaster was persistent and convincing enough that he began asking questions around town. Shue’s neighbors and friends told Preston about the man’s strange behavior at the funeral, and Dr. Knapp admitted that his examination had been incomplete.
It was enough for Preston to justify an order for a complete autopsy, and a few days later, the body was exhumed despite Shue’s objections. Knapp and two other doctors laid the body out in the town’s one-room schoolhouse to give it a thorough examination. A local newspaper, The Pocahontas Times, later reported that, “On the throat were the marks of fingers indicating that she had been choken [sic]; that the neck was dislocated between the first and second vertebrae. The ligaments were torn and ruptured. The windpipe had been crushed at a point in front of the neck.”
It was clear Elva’s death was not natural, but there was no evidence pointing to the killer, and no witnesses. Shue’s strange behavior since Elva’s death stuck in Preston’s mind and cast some suspicion on him. At the same time, Elva’s mother had described exactly how her daughter was killed before the autopsy was performed. Maybe she’d done it, and the ghost story was an elaborate plot to frame Shue.
Preston continued to investigate and began looking into Shue’s past. He learned that Shue had been married twice before. The first ended in divorce while Shue was in prison for stealing a horse. That wife later told police that Shue was extremely violent and beat her frequently while they were married. His second marriage ended after just eight months with the mysterious death of the wife. In between these marriages, Shue boasted in prison that he planned to marry seven women in his lifetime. The previous wife’s mysterious death and Shue’s history of abuse were circumstantial, but enough for Preston to bring him to trial.
Mary Jane Heaster was the prosecution’s star witness, but Preston wanted to avoid the issue of her ghostly sightings, since Elva’s story as relayed by her mother might be objected to as hearsay by the defense. Perhaps hoping to prove her unreliable, Shue’s lawyer questioned Heaster extensively about the ghost’s visits on cross-examination. The tactic backfired, with Heaster refusing to waver in her account despite intense badgering by the lawyer. Many people in the community, if not the jury, seemed to believe Heaster’s story, and Shue did himself no favors taking the stand in his own defense, rambling and appealing to the jury “to look into his face and then say if he was guilty.” The Greenbrier Independent reported that his “testimony, manner, and so forth, made an unfavorable impression on the spectators.” The jury deliberated for just an hour and ten minutes before returning a guilty verdict.
Shue was sentenced to life in prison, but died soon after as epidemics of measles and pneumonia tore through the prison in the spring of 1900. Mrs. Heaster lived until 1916, and never recanted her story about Elva’s ghost. Maybe her story swayed the jury and won the case. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe her daughter spoke to her from beyond the grave, maybe the ghost was all in Heaster’s head, or maybe it was a strategic lie. But no matter who saw or believed what, without the ghost story, Heaster may have never gone to Preston, and Shue might not have gone to trial.
A historical marker in Greenbrier County commemorates Elva’s death and the unusual court case that followed, noting that this was the “only known case in which testimony from [a] ghost helped convict a murderer.”
So many weird things happen in the Pacific Northwest that, comparatively, a mysterious hole in the ground seems pretty innocuous – at first. Next to numerous Bigfoot sightings and miles of giant mushrooms, the phenomenon of Mel’s Hole seems pretty straightforward until you realize that it also happens to be a bottomless pit that brings animals back from the dead. Mel’s Hole is one of the most mysterious places in the state of Washington. The mystery of Mel’s Hole all started with an interview on Coast to Coast AM radio when a caller identifying himself as Mel Waters claimed that he found a real-life bottomless pit on his property.
As you can imagine, things only got creepier from there – Pet Sematary creepy. Today, this supernatural phenomenon in Washington, like so many others, straddles the line between being famous and elusive.
Curious? Unnerved? Both? If supernatural entertainment intrigues you, read on for more facts about Mel’s Hole, its rise to notoriety, and the bizarre secrets said to hide somewhere in its bottomless depths.
hough Mel Waters (if he ever existed at all) is credited with having brought attention to the pit, the legend itself began long before he came around. Local residents, authorities, and indigenous tribes knew of the hole for decades before Waters bought his property.
As the story goes, the pit was about nine feet in diameter, with walls constructed out of hand-placed bricks stretching 15 feet down before transitioning into dirt and darkness. Known popularly as “the Devil’s Hole,” the locals all agreed that there was something rather unsettling about the hole’s existence, but no one cared – nor wanted – to think too hard about what that “something” might be. Manastash Ridge residents instead used the hole as a garbage dump and decided not to question the eerie fact that the pit never appeared to fill up.
According to Waters’s interview with Coast to Coast AM host Art Bell, once Waters realized that the hole wasn’t showing any signs of filling up, he decided to test it. His plan was to bring thousands of feet of fishing line and a sturdy fishing rod out to the hole, add weight to the fishing line, and then measure how far down it went before hitting the bottom. By the end of hist test, Waters got more than he bargained for: the hole had no bottom. And if a bottom does exist, it’s deep enough that the weighted line failed to go slack after 80,000 feet. Neither Waters nor anyone else has ever confirmed reaching the bottom.
People who have been brave enough to approach the pit all noticed something peculiar about the area’s wildlife – or more aptly, the lack thereof. Animals obviously hated the hole and would do their best to stay as far away from it as possible. Waters even reported that his own dogs refused to approach the hole. When he tried to bring them closer to it, they dug their paws into the ground in protest. Other visitors even took note of the fact that birds avoided flying directly over it and no other small animals ever appeared near it. According to various reports, the only signs of wildlife were piles of bones strewn around the mouth of the pit.
After Waters allegedly lowered 80,000 feet of fishing line into the hole on his property to try and locate the bottom, he suspected that there might be something more sinister about the hole than its infinite depth. Waters began performing a variety of other tests in an attempt to better understand this seemingly endless pit. When he yelled directly into the pit, he heard silence instead of an echo; and if he brought a handheld radio near the hole, it would play music that sounded decades out of date.
Further tests were conducted at a location known as the second Devil’s Hole, a pit in Nevada believed to have properties identical to those of the Washington hole. When a bucket of ice was lowered about 1,500 feet down into the hole, the ice had changed by the time it was brought back up—it felt inexplicably warm, seemed to dry out the air near it, and even became flammable.
Mel Waters’s interview with Art Bell on Coast to Coast AM brought the hole into public consciousness, and one of the stories he told during the call was absolutely chilling. According to Mel, locals have used the hole to get rid of anything from old equipment to dead cattle. But, apparently, throwing something down the hole didn’t guarantee that it would stay there. During the interview, Mel claimed that when one of his neighbors’ dogs passed away, his neighbor brought the dog to the hole to get rid of it. The neighbor then allegedly told Mel that after he’d done so, he later saw his dog running in the forest, alive and well—and still wearing the collar that had been around its neck when its body had been brought to the hole.
One of the most skin-crawling stories about Mel’s Hole details the fate of a sheep that Mel Waters claims to have lowered into the pit as one of the many experiments he conducted. The sheep, like Mel’s dogs and other local animals, was absolutely terrified of the pit and Mel had to tranquilize it in order to get it close enough to the mouth of the hole. Curious after hearing about the strange fate of a bucket of ice that apparently became warm and flammable after being lowered into a similar hole, Mel decided to do the same thing with the sheep. What happened to the sheep, though, was even stranger.
When Mel hoisted the sheep back up out of the hole, it was dead, and it appeared to have been cooked from the inside. Even stranger was that something appeared to be moving inside it, and when it was cut open, Mel saw something that he described as resembling a fetal seal with human eyes staring back at him. He immediately threw the creature back into the hole. When he told the story to curious neighbors, some said that they too had seen a similar creature around the hole before. Whatever it is, it may be the only thing that can get in and out of Mel’s Hole.
Mel Waters’s property in Washington is home to the original pit that spawned the legend, but it’s not the only one. Another hole is said to exist in Nevada that displays properties very similar to those attributed to the original Mel’s Hole. According to Mel, he’s visited the second hole as well, and it’s every bit as bizarre and fascinating as the one found on his property.
Birds of an unidentifiable species have been seen circling the Nevada pit, and when Mel attempted to shoot one down for study, he found that the bullets seemed to ricochet right off of them. If bulletproof birds are any indication, the Nevada hole is likely hiding just as many supernatural secrets as Mel’s.
The alleged interaction between Mel Waters and the US government, if true, means that Mel’s Hole is more important than even Mel himself realized. According to Mel’s story, government agents attempted to prevent him from entering his own property, claiming that a plane had crashed there. When he refused to believe their story, they abruptly switched tacks and offered to lease his land from him for $250,000 on one condition: if he accepted, he would have to leave the country. Mel, being in dire straits at the time, accepted. He then moved to Australia and didn’t return for several years. When he did, government agents insisted that they had bought his land. Locals then informed Mel that the area around the pit had been guarded by black vans and helicopters since he left.
After Mel Waters’s first interview on Coast to Coast AM, no one had any reason to question his identity. Then his story started to strike a chord. Coast to Coast listeners were enthralled by stories of the pit, so Mel decided to give a second interview. But, paradoxically, the more Mel stepped into the spotlight, the more interesting he – and his story – seemed to become.
He had been featured on Coast to Coast AM several times before followers of the story began to search local records for his name in hopes of determining the exact location of the hole—and they found nothing. No property transfers had been conducted in the area during the time that Mel claimed to have sold the land to the government, and no one named Mel Waters had voted, paid taxes, or even lived there. Whether “Mel” was a hoax or a pseudonym, Mel Waters was ultimately consumed by the mystery of the hole himself.
Among the Coast to Coast AM listeners who took an interest in the story of Mel’s Hole was a geologist named Jack Powell. After hearing Mel describe the characteristics of the pit on the radio, Powell thought he recognized the hole as being an abandoned mine shaft that he had was familiar with from his childhood. But when Mel revealed that he had lowered at least 80,000 feet of fishing line into the hole in order to test its depth, Powell realized that the story was much stranger than he had thought: a hole that deep would not be physically possible. Based on Powell’s geological expertise, this can only mean that Mel Waters designed a spectacular hoax—or that among the many mysteries presented by Mel’s Hole is a localized geographical anomaly.
Anyone who is level headed is going to have a tough time believing that there is a huge half man-moth creature going around terrorizing a small town in Chicago. However, according to many people, this is exactly what happened during 2017 when there were 55 sightings of the creature.
It seems that the moth-man started appearing to residents of a small town in 1966 and 1967 to warn about an upcoming catastrophe relating to the collapse of a bridge in the town of Point Pleasant in West Virginia. The story about the strange creature was told by John Keel in the novel with the title of “The Mothman Prophecies” and it was then made into a movie and starred Richard Gere.
Now the Mothman creature has started to turn up in Chicago, and there have been numerous reports of the creature. A Fortean researcher, Lon Strickler, has compiled the sightings on his website and he also wrote a book by the name of “The Mothman Dynasty.” The book takes a look at all of the sightings of the Mothman ever since the latter half of the 1970s.
The new sightings of the Mothman started in February of 2017 and since that time Strickler has spent many hours interviewing witnesses who have claimed to have seen the Mothman and documented their stories. John Amitrano is one of the people who claim that he saw the Mothman.
Amitrano said that he was working late one night in a hangout in Chicago that was popular and he then went outside and saw something that he found difficult to explain. He said that he had seen a plane flying in the sky, but there was something moving underneath it very awkwardly. He said that it took on the appearance of what pterodactyls look like in illustrations, with a head that was slender and wings. He said that he did not think it was a bat or bird as it did not have feathers or fur and did not fly like a bat or bird or anything he could think of.
He said that the creature had legs that were muscular, a human-like shape and the creature flew in a motion that was strange, swooping down and then undulating up and then back down. The sighting by Amitrano is just one of the 55 sightings that have taken the place of the Mothman in the Chicago region during 2017. Many of the reports have been of the Mothman flying in the sky. However, there have been accounts by some people of the creature landing on the bonnets of vehicles and swooping out the sky down onto people. Stickler said, “the group sightings of the Mothman are historical in cryptozoology terms.” He went on to say for one it is happening in a region that is urban and there have been so many sightings all at once.
Strickler said that he uses the West Virginia Mothman Sightings from the 1960s as a reference point and he went on to say that he does not think that the creature in Chicago is warning residents of an impending disaster. He went on to say that the beings are not as aggressive as the one that was appearing in Point Pleasant. He went on to say that he thought overall there had only been one creature in the Point Pleasant region seen during the period.
Psychologist Dr. David A. Gallo, from the University of Chicago, has undertaken research into memory, and more so with how people actively reconstruct the past, sometimes inaccurately, does not think that the sightings are what Strickler is making them out to be.
He went on to say that it was a selective sample and when people choose to report the sightings, the basis of data on which the paranormal researchers collect is self-report. This means that Strickler is not sampling random people to ask if they have seen the Mothman, he is only counting those who came forward and reported having seen the creature.
Gallo went on to say that he does not deny that the people who claim to have seen the Mothman have seen something that they cannot explain. He said that there is a phenomenon where people have witnessed something. He went on to say that if there are gaps or holes in that experience, the mind is often not able to fill in the gaps. Gallo pointed out that if something has been suggested to them as being a scenario that is plausible, like there being a Mothman, the person might fill the gaps with that scenario.
For now, the Mothman remains something of a mystery, perhaps people did see a strange moth-like creature as big as a man or perhaps their minds just told them they did.
TIME TRAVELING TOMB
Swinging open the front gate of Brompton Cemetery is a bit like cracking the spine of a book detailing London history. Famous suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst rests here. Beatrix Potter strolled its 39 acres and plucked names from tombstones to use in her work, including decedents Peter Rabbett and Mr. Nutkins. More than 35,000 monuments in all are present, rich and poor, known and obscure.
In the middle of the grounds and shrouded by trees stands a mausoleum. An imposing 20 feet tall with a pyramid peak, it’s made from granite, with a heavy bronze door secured by a keyhole. Decorative accents line the front, furthering the air of mystery. The door’s margin displays a rectangular band of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Erected in the early 1850s, it was intended as the final resting place of a woman named Hannah Courtoy and two of her three daughters, Mary and Elizabeth.
Courtoy’s tomb would be remarkable for its imposing stature and cryptic veneer alone: It’s the largest, most elaborate construction in Brompton. But there’s more to the story. For the many visitors who make moonlight visits to the cemetery and for a small band of London raconteurs, the tomb’s missing key and resulting lack of access has led to speculation that something strange is going on inside—that it’s secretly a time machine.
It’s a fantastic notion, but one that London musician and Courtoy historian Stephen Coates is quick to dismiss. “It’s not a time machine,” he tells mental_floss. “It’s a teleportation chamber.”
In order to try and digest the bizarre urban legend that’s been constructed around Courtoy’s tomb, it helps to understand the highly controversial life of the woman who ordered its construction.
Born around 1784 (sources differ), Hannah Peters fled an abusive father at a young age and found work as a housekeeper and as a tavern employee. In 1800, a friend introduced her to John Courtoy, a 70-year-old former wigmaker in poor health who had made a fortune in the lending business. Peters was shortly in his employ as a housekeeper. Within the year, she had given birth to the first of three daughters. She claimed they were Courtoy’s, although some eyes were raised in suspicion that the friend who made the introduction, Francis Grosso, might have been the real father.
Courtoy’s illness is also ill-defined in historical accounts, although it was said to follow a violent run-in with a prostitute in 1795 that left Courtoy—who had been slashed at with a knife—reserved and antisocial. He apparently warmed to Peters, who took his name and exerted considerable influence over many of his decisions. Courtoy’s 1810 will, which left the bulk of his fortune to an ex-wife named Mary Ann Woolley and their five children, was revised in 1814 so Hannah received the majority share.
When Courtoy died in 1818, the contents of the will were disputed, both by Woolley and Courtoy’s French relatives; they argued that dementia had overtaken Courtoy’s better senses. The legal arguments dragged on through 1827, at which point Hannah and her daughters had received most of Courtoy’s money.
According to the account presented in author David Godson’s 2014 book Courtoy’s Complaint, largely based on diaries kept by Courtoy housekeeper Maureen Sayers, Hannah’s urge to distract herself from the often-unpleasant Courtoy led to developing a friendship that would prove essential to her later mythology. Like many Victorians of the era, Hannah was intrigued by Egyptian iconography, particularly hieroglyphics. She believed Egyptians had a deep understanding of astrology and their place in the universe, and she invited Egyptologist Joseph Bonomi over for regular visits.
Bonomi and Hannah would spend hours discussing Egyptian lore, with Hannah hoping to one day fund Bonomi’s expeditions to Egypt so he could study their work. The two would also arrange for a 175-foot-tall monument dedicated to the Duke of Wellington to be constructed and insisted that the sculpture resemble an Egyptian obelisk.
When Hannah died in 1849, her remains were set to be placed in an expensive, elaborate mausoleum in Brompton that paid tribute to her interests; Bonomi arranged for the tomb to feature Egyptian characters and a pyramidal top. Later, Mary and Elizabeth, who shied from marriage because they didn’t want men chasing after their wealth, joined her. (Susannah, who married, was buried elsewhere.) When Bonomi died in 1878, he arranged for a depiction of Courtoy’s tomb to appear on his own modest headstone. Whether Bonomi intended it or not, an illustration of Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, appears to be “looking” in the direction of his friend’s final resting place.
Things appeared to remain status quo at Brompton for the next 100 years or so. Then, around 1980, the key to the tomb was lost following a visit by Hannah’s relatives. And that’s when things took a turn for the weird.
Intending to pique the interest of readers during Halloween, Associated Press reporter Helen Smith wrote a story in October 1998 that may have been the first mainstream article to raise the theory that Courtoy’s tomb might actually be a time machine.
Smith described the monument as a “strange, imposing structure” containing “three spinsters, about whom almost nothing is known” and cited an unheralded author named Howard Webster as perpetuator of the story. Webster claimed his research had excavated a connection between Bonomi and Samuel Alfred Warner, a “maverick Victorian genius” and fraudster said to have attempted to interest the British armed forces in several advanced weapons—too advanced, in fact, to actually exist.
Webster speculated that Warner’s inventive abilities may have led him to consort with Bonomi, who supposedly had knowledge of the Egyptian theories of time travel. Together, the two convinced the wealthy, trusting Hannah to finance their secret project, with Bonomi providing ancient wisdom and Warner adding his breakthrough scientific resources. By placing their device in a cemetery, Warner could guarantee the structure was unlikely to be disturbed over decades or centuries, allowing him to return to London after traveling through time again and again.
The lack of a key was crucial to Webster’s tale. Since it had been lost and no one had been inside for years, it could be argued that perhaps Warner was busying himself in a manner similar to an occupant of the TARDIS, bouncing from era to era, while Hannah and her family were either entombed or buried someplace else entirely. Webster also claimed that plans for the tomb were missing, which was rarely the case with other monuments in Brompton.
The story bubbled to the surface periodically over the years. In 2003, an album cover by musician Drew Mulholland depicted the tomb and its eerie structure, which led to some renewed interest. In 2011, Coates, a musician with a band named the Real Tuesday Weld, came across mention of the theory and was intrigued. He wrote a post on his blog positing that the Courtoy tomb was not a means of time travel, but that Warner had the technology to teleport torpedoes and that he later adopted that framework to develop a series of teleportation chambers in and around “the Magnificent Seven,” a group of London’s historic private cemeteries.
“It was a way to move around the city,” Coates says. “Warner and Bonomi worked together on ancient Egyptian occult theory and science. I posted that on my blog, and it started to take on a life of its own.”
Coates’s premise is a proper study in how an urban legend can proliferate. With the key still missing, it was impossible to disprove the teleportation idea with any real precision, and the mythology allowed for a great deal of speculation. Was Warner, who died in 1848, killed because he knew too much about revolutionary technology? Why did the tomb take four years to complete following Hannah’s death, which meant she didn’t actually enter it until 1853? Was Hannah duped by the two to fund what she might have believed would be a pioneering mode of travel?
It became, Coates says, “one of the myths of the city.” In 2015, the Independent ran a feature describing his belief, contrasting it with the activities of Hannah Courtoy descendant Ray Godson, who simply wanted access to the tomb to pay his respects to his great-great-grandmother. The feature came just as Coates was busy organizing visitor groups that could come—with the cemetery’s permission—hear the legend of Courtoy, Bonomi, and Warner while standing near the tomb in the middle of the night.
“I fell in love with the idea,” Vanessa Woolf, a professional storyteller based in London who hosts the gatherings, tells mental_floss. “I must credit Stephen Coates. I contacted him after hearing about the myth and told him I really wanted to tell the story. He said to go for it.” Woolf hosted the first event in 2015 and has done several more since. “The first time, we were absolutely overwhelmed with bookings,” she says.
In the story presentation, Woolf tells of a “barking mad” inventor named Warner who connects with Bonomi and hatches an idea for a teleportation network. Hannah, she relates, had an interest in the occult and unexplained phenomena.
“There’s a huge interest in the story in London,” she says. “I think people are just interested in the fabric of places where they live. This is a story rooted in the secret, in the occult, but no one is quite sure what actually happened.”
It can be difficult to corner Coates for a precise answer on whether he believes his fanciful hypothesis about the resting place of Hannah Courtoy. When initially contacted for an interview, he agreed while mentioning that he “came up with the whole teleportation system idea as the background to a short story.” In conversation, he presents the teleportation springboard as a “way for people to make up their own mind” about what the tomb might contain. A breath or two later, he expresses doubt that Hannah’s daughters might still be entombed there, before wondering whether the mausoleum might be home to a secret subterranean chamber.
It’s all “alternative theory based on historical fact,” he says. Reached by telephone, it’s hard not to imagine a slight expression of amusement crossing his face.
Performance art or not, the attention has increased awareness over the cemetery’s attempts to secure funds for a site-wide renovation. (Courtoy’s tomb was partially spruced up in 2009 following aging, frost-coated chunks of granite sloughing off the side, with costs partially covered by a family trust.) When asked to comment on whether the midnight vigils and sightseers have been disruptive, Brompton officials refer questions right back to Coates, who appears to have become their unofficial spokesman on all things involving molecular disruption and Egyptian time-hopping.
“It’s not something they promote themselves,” Coates says. “They’re very welcoming of people who come if they’re showing respect. The conservation efforts have been going on for years, and the events help that.” At the last Coates-arranged show, tickets went for $8 to $10, with a quarter of the proceeds donated to the cemetery’s rebuilding efforts.
How many people will visit once a key is made is another question. Both Coates and a Brompton Cemetery historian named Arthur Tait say that efforts are currently underway to fabricate a replacement that would allow Hannah’s relatives access to the tomb. After an initial flush of curiosity, wouldn’t the presumably ordinary interior dampen interest?
“Opening it may not establish it’s not a time machine,” Coates hedges. “It may just deepen the mystery.”
For Woolf, who still has regular engagements hosting visitors near the tomb, seeing a key may be a letdown. “It’s much nicer, in a way, not having it,” she says. “It’s really all in the minds of the audience. It’s a slab of rock. The real magic is in their minds.”
Usually. While Woolf normally gets very positive notices from those attending her performances, one reviewer on Instagram does stick out. “It said something like, ‘Oh, I was really excited, but then got really disappointed. She didn’t even open it.’”