Wild Talents

A Hypertext Edition of Charles Hoy Fort's Book

Edited and Annotated by Mr. X

Chapter Nine



UPON APRIL 16, 1922, a man was taken to Charing Cross Hospital, London, suffering from a wound in his neck. It was said that he would tell nothing about himself, except that, while walking along a turning, off Coventry Street, he had been stabbed. Hours later, another man, who had been wounded in the neck, entered the hospital. He told, with a foreign accent, that in a turning, off Coventry Street, he had been so wounded. He signed his name in the hospital register, as Pilbert, but would, it was said, give no other information about the assault upon him. Late in the day, another wounded man was taken to this hospital, where according to the records, he refused to tell anything about what had befallen him, except that he had been stabbed in the neck, while walking along a turning, off Coventry Street.

In the pockets of these men were found racing slips. The police explained that probably all of them were victims of a turf-feud.

It is, considering many other data, quite thinkable that, [81/82] instead of refusing to tell how they had been wounded, these men were unable to tell, but that this inability was so mysterious that the hospital authorities recorded it as a refusal. See the London Daily Express, April 17, and the People, April 23, 1922.(1)

In a London hospital, there is small chance for an unconventional record, and probably in no London newspaper would have published any reporter's notion of the lurk of an invisible and murderous thing, in a turning, off Coventry Street. But, in the London Daily Mail, Sept. 26, 1923, there was an account of something like this, but far away.(2) It was a facetious account. Murderous things always have, somewhere, been regarded humorously. Or fondly. No address was published, or probably this one would have received letters from women, wanting to marry it. The story was that, in September, 1923, there was a Mumiai scare in India. Mumiais are invisibles that grab people. They have no sense of the mystic: don't dwell in enchanted woods, nor feel out for victims from old towers, or ruins, they grab people. Coolies, in the city of Lahore, believed that a Mumiai was abroad. There was a panic in Lahore, and it fed upon screams of rickshaw men, who thought that they were grabbed.

Probably the Daily Mail published this story, because of wavelets of gratification that arose from it, at London breakfast tables. It is usually thought that the value of coolies is only in their willingness to work for a few cents a day: but I have a notion that they have another function; or that, if it were not for coolies, and their silly [82/83] superstitions that give the rest of us some sense of superiority to keep going on, millions of the rest of us would lie down and die of chagrin. Sometime I shall develop a theory of Evolution in aristocratic terms, showing that things probably made of themselves oysters and lion and hyenas, just for the thrill of gratification in being able to say that at least they weren't elephants, or worms, or human beings. I know how it is, myself, and have compensations, in thinking of silly, credulous people who believe that a dog ever said "Good Morning!" and disappeared in a thin, greenish vapor.

Away back in the year 1890, the Japanese were coolies. Then they showed such talents for slaughter that now they are respected everywhere. But, in the year 1890, the Japanese were supposed to be little more than a nation of artists. A story of a panic in Japan was something to smile smugly about. I take a story from the Religio-Philosophical Journal, May 17, 1890, as copied from the newspapers.(3) People in Japan thought that, sometimes in the streets, and sometimes in their houses, an invisible thing was attacking them. They thought that upon persons were appearing wounds, each a slash about an inch long. They thought that, at the time of an attack, little pain was felt.

Possibly a Jap, educated according to what is supposed to be an education, having his ideas as to the identity and geographical distribution of coolies, has looked over the files of American newspapers, and has come upon accounts of a series of occurrences in New York City, in the winter of 1891-92, and has been amused to note the mystery that [83/84] New York reporters infused into their accounts of woundings of men, in the streets of New York. The reporters told of a "vanishing man." The assassin "disappeared marvellously." As noted in the New York Sun, Jan. 14, 1892, five men had been stabbed by an unknown assailant.(4) There were other attacks. The police were blamed, and in the downtown precincts of the city, the most important order, each day, was to catch the stabber.

Jan. 17 -- "Slasher captured."(5) The police were out to get him, and one of them got an unterrifying-looking little fellow, named Dowd. It was said that he had been caught, stabbing a man.

In the mixture of all situations, it is impossible to be unable to pick out grounds for reasonably believing, or disbelieving, anything. Say that it is our preference to believe -- or to accept -- that it was not the "marvellously disappearing" slasher who was caught, but somebody else who would do just as well. Then we note that, twenty minutes earlier, another policeman had caught a man, who had, this policeman said, seized somebody, and was about to stab him. Or June, 1899 -- and two men were out to catch the "kissing bug" -- and one of them caught a beetle, and the other nabbed a butterfly. The policeman of the first arrest was ignored; the captor of Dowd was made a roundsman.

Dowd pleaded not guilty. He said that he had had nothing to do with the other assaults, and had drawn his knife only in this one case, which had been a quarrel. His lawyer pleaded not guilty, but insane. He was found in- [84/85] sane, and was sent to the asylum for insane criminals, at Auburn, N.Y.

The outrages in New York stopped. Brooklyn Eagle, March 12, 1892 -- dispatch from Vienna, Austria -- "This city continues to be shocked by mysterious murders. The latest victim is Leopold Buchinger, who was stabbed to the heart by an undetected assassin, in one of the most public places in Vienna. This makes the list of such tragedies five in number, and there is a growing feeling of terror among the public."(6)

Say that it's an old castle, hidden away in the Balkan forest -- and somebody was wounded, at night -- but, as if lulled by a vampire's wings, felt no pain. This would be only an ordinarily incredible story.

In November, 1901, a woman told a policeman, of Kiel, Germany, that, while walking in a street in Kiel, she learned that she had been unaccountably wounded. She had felt no pain. She could not explain.

The police probably explained. If a doctor was consulted, he probably explained learnedly.

Another woman -- about thirty women -- "curious and inexplicable attacks." Then men were similarly injured. About eighty persons, openly, in the streets, were stabbed by an uncatchable -- an invisible -- or it may be the most fitting description to say that, upon the bodies of people of Kiel, wounds appeared. See the London Daily Mail, Dec. 7, 1901 -- "The extraordinary thing about the mystery is that some marvellously sharp instrument must have been used, because the victims do not seem to know [85/86] that they are wounded, until several minutes after the attack."(7)

And yet I think that something of an explanation of these Jacks is findable in every male's recollections of his own boyhood -- the ringing of door bells, just to torment people -- stretching a string over sidewalks, to knock off hats -- other, pestiferous tricks. It is not only "just for fun"; there is an engagement of the imagination in these pranks. It will be my expression that, when the more powerful and more definite imagination of an adult human similarly engages and concentrates, phenomena that will be considered beyond belief, or acceptance, by readers who do not realize of what common occurrence they are, develop.

We have had stories of series of accidents, and perhaps my suspicion that they were not mere coincidences has been regarded at least tolerantly. I have data upon three automobile accidents that occurred at times not far apart; and, as to this series, I note a seeming association with minor attacks upon other automobiles, and upon people, that suggests the doings of one criminal. If so, he will have to be called occult, whether we take readily to, or are much repelled by, that term.

Upon the night of April 9th, 1927, Alexander Nemko and Pearl Devon were motoring through Hyde Park, London, when their car dashed down an incline, and plunged into the Serpentine. The car sank in fifteen feet of water. Though terrified and drowning, Nemko had his wits with him, so that he opened the door of the car, and [86/87] dragged his companion to the surface, and, with her, swam ashore.

There was nothing in the lay of the land by which to explain. The newspapers noted that there had never been an accident here before. "The steering gear apparently failed," was Nemko's attempt to explain. Perhaps it is queer that right at this point, so near a body of water, the steering gear failed; but, considered by itself, as mysteries usually are considered, there is little that can be said against Nemko's way of explaining.(8)

Two nights later, a taxicab plunged into the Thames, at Walton. The passenger swam ashore, but the driver was, it seems, drowned. His body was dredged for, but was not found. The passenger, who must have been jostled past having any clear remembrance of what occurred, explaining that, at the brink of the river, the rear wheels of the car had dropped into a deep rut, and that the car jolted into the river.(9)

Upon May 3rd -- see the London Evening Standard, May 6 -- William Farrance and Beatrice Villes, of Linomroad, Clapham, London, were driving near Tunbridge Wells, when the car suddenly plunged toward a hedge, at the left of the road.(10) Farrance succeeded in forcing the car to the right. Again something drove it toward the hedge. Farrance was powerless to stop it, and it broke through the hedge, overturning, killing the girl.

A schoolgirl, Beryl de Meza, was shot by somebody unknown and unseen, while playing in the street, near her home, at Hampstead, London.(11)

At Sheffield, there was an occurrence that was atro- [87/88] cious, but that may not be uncanny, but that attracts my attention because of the fiendishness of something else with which it associates. At the Soho Grinding Works, it was found, morning of April 29th, that grinding wheels had been chipped, and that belting had been stripped from pulleys. Nails had been driven, points upward, in chairs upon which the grinders sat. Tools had been thrown into motors, and currents had been turned on, causing much damage. All this looks like sabotage, malicious but scarcely "fiendish"; but in a building next door there had been doings that are so describable. Chickens had been tortured; combs cut off, legs broken, the head of one burned; other mutilated, and their injuries smeared with white paint.(12)

London Evening Standard, May 5 -- "Mystery of four shooting affairs."(13) A boy, playing in Mitchum Park, London, was shot in the head, by an air gun, it was thought, though no air gun pellet was found. At Totting Bec-common, an "air gun pellet" -- though it was not said that an air gun pellet was found -- passed through the wind shield of a motor car. In Stamford two men were shot by an unknown assailant. London Sunday Express, May 8 -- Mr. George Berlam, of Leigh-on-Sea, motoring on the road from London to Southend -- he heard a report, and his wind shield was splintered.(14) In accounts of the punctured wind shield, at Tooting Bec-common, the driver of the car was quoted as saying that he had heard a report, and at the same time a laugh. "though nobody was about, at the time."

Wounds have appeared upon people. Usually the expla- [88/89] nation is that they were stabbed. Objects have been mutilated. Windowpanes and automobile windshields have been pierced, as if by bullets, but by bullets that could not be found. Such were the doings of the "phantom sniper of Camden" (N.J.). He appeared first, in November, 1927; but the first clipping that I have, relating to him, is from the New York Evening Post, Jan. 26, 1928 -- a store window pierced by a bullet -- the eighth repeated occurrence.(15) Later, the stories were definitely of a "phantom sniper" and his "phantom bullets."

New York Herald Tribune, Feb. 9, 1928 -- Collingswood, N.J., Feb. 8 -- "The `phantom sniper,' if it was the work of South Jersey's mysterious marksman, scored his most sensational attack tonight when a window in the home of William T. Turnbull was shattered by what appeared to be a charge of shot.(16)

"Police at first believed it an attempted assassination, but, as in all the other cases, no missile was found.

"Turnbull, a Philadelphia stockbroker, and a former president of the Collingswood Borough Council, who was seated near the window, reading, was splattered with glass. He said that an automobile had stopped in front of the house a few minutes before. The absence of any grains of shot added to the mystery."

I have sent letters of enquiry to all persons mentioned in the various reports. I received not one answer. It may be preferable to some readers to think that there are no such persons. Still, I note that not one of these letters was dead-lettered back to me.

The attacks continued until Feb. 28, 1928.(17) Window [89/90] panes and wind shields of automobiles were pierced by something that made no report of a gun, and that was unfindable. Something, or somebody, who was unseen, caused excitement in half a dozen towns from Philadelphia to Newark. Even if I could persuade myself that I am over-fanciful in my own notions, the seemingly veritable stories of a missile-less gun would be interesting. Authorities in Jersey towns, noting the range of the malefactor, were especially watchful of motorists; but it is my notion that he had no need of anything on wheels in which to do his travelling. I noticed a similar range, in the doings in England, in April and May, 1927.(18)

Snipings by the "Camden phantom" were the show-off, and nobody was injured by him; but a more harmful fellow operated in Boston, beginning about Nov. 1, 1930. I think that these sportsmen, who possibly are sentimental opponents to the shooting of game birds and deer, and practice their cruelties in ways that seem to them less condemnable, divide into the occult, and into more imaginative fellows who have found out how to practice occultly. In Boston, a noiseless weapon was used, but, this time, in two weeks, two men and a woman were seriously injured, and bullets of small calibre were removed from their wounds. These attacks so alarmed people that policemen, armed with riot guns, lined the roads south of Boston, with orders to catch the "silent sniper." The attacks continued until about the middle of February, 1931. Nobody was caught.

In this period (Nov. 12, 1931) a dispatch to the news- [90/91] papers, from Bogota, Colombia, told of a "puzzling crime wave." In the hospitals were forty-five persons, suffering from stab wounds. "The police were unable to explain what appeared to be a general attack, but they arrested more than 200 persons."

Another occurrence of "phantom bullets," in the State of New Jersey, was told of, in the New York Herald, Feb. 2, 1916, Mr. and Mrs. Charles F. Repp, of Glassboro, N.J., had been fired upon by "phantom bullets."(19) This was a special attack upon one house. There were sounds of breaking glass, and bullet holes were found in window panes, but nothing beyond the window panes was marked. It is such a circumstance as was told of in accounts of the "Camden sniper." It is as if somebody fired, not only with a missileless gun, or with invisible bullets, but as if with intent only to perforate windows, and with effects controlled by, and limited by, his intent. Consequently, instead of thinking of a shooting at window panes, I tend simply to think that holes appeared in window glass. Nobody in the house was injured, but Mr. and Mrs. Repp were terrified and they fled. Members of the Township Committee investigated, and they reported that, though no bullets were findable, the windows "were broken much as a window usually is, when a bullet crashes through it."

That's the story. Of witnesses, I.C. Soddy and Howard R. Moore were mentioned. I sent letters of enquiry to all persons whose names were given, and received not one reply. There are several ways of explaining. One is that it is probable that persons who have experiences such as [91/92] those told in this book, receive so many "crank letters" that they answer none. Dear me -- once upon a time, I enjoyed a sense of amusement and superiority toward "cranks." And now here am I, a "crank," myself. Like most writers, I have the moralist somewhere in my composition, and here I warn -- take care, oh, reader, with whom you are amused, unless you enjoy laughing at yourself.

It seemed to me doubtful that a woman could go along Upper Broadway, and jab, with a hat pin, five men and a woman, before being caught. There has been a gathering of suggestions of not ordinary woundings. In Lloyd's Weekly News (London) Feb. 21, 1909, there was an account of a panic in Berlin.(20) Many women, in the streets of the city, had been stabbed. It was said that the assailant had been seen, and he was described as "a young man, always vanishing." If he was seen, he is another of the "uncatchables." In this newspaper of February 23, it was said that 73 women had been stabbed, all except four of them not seriously.(21)

We have had data that suggest the existence of vampires, other than humans of the type of the Portuguese sailor; but the brazen and serialized -- sometimes murderous, but sometimes petty -- assaults upon men and women are of a different order, and seem to me to be the work of imaginative criminals, stabbing people to make mystery, and to make a stir. I feel that I can understand their motives, because once upon a time I was an imaginative criminal, myself. Once upon a time I was a boy. One time, when I was a boy, I caught a lot of flies. There was [92/93] nothing of the criminal, nor of the malicious, in what I did, this time, but it seems to give me an understanding of the "phantom" stabbers and snipers. I painted the backs of the flies red, and turned them loose. There was an imaginative pleasure in thinking of flies, so bearing my mark, attracting attention, causing people to wonder, spreading far, appearing in distant places, so marked by me.

In some of our stories there is much suggestion that there was no "vanishing man" -- that wounds appeared upon people, as appeared -- or as it was said to have appeared -- a wound on the head of a sailor. See back to the story told by the captain of the Brechsee. Or that wounds appeared upon people, and that the victims, examined by the police, were more or less bullied into giving some kind of description of an assailant. However, some of the stories of the "vanishing man" look as if he, too, may be. There may be several ways of doing these things. Early in the year 1907, a "vanishing man" was reported from the town of Winchester, England. I take from the Weekly Dispatch (London), Feb. 10, 1907.(22) Women of Winchester were complaining of an "uncatchable," who was committing petty assaults upon them, such as rapping their hands. "A mysterious feature of the affair is that the man disappears, as if by magic."

The "phantom stabber" of Bridgeport, Conn., appeared first Feb. 20th, 1925, and the last of his attacks, of which I have record, was upon June 1st, 1928. That was a long time in which to operate, uncaught. In the daytime, mostly, though sometimes at night, girls were [93/94] stabbed: in the streets, in such public places as a department store and the entrance of a library. Descriptions of the assailant were indefinite. In almost all instances the wounds were not serious. One of the stories, as told in the New York Herald Tribune, Aug. 27, 1927, is typical of the circumstances of publicity, or of the confidence of an assailant that he could not be caught.(23) If my stories will be regarded as ghost stories, a novelty about them is the eeriness of crowded thoroughfares -- a lurk near Coventry Street, London, and the sneak of an invisible in Broadway, New York. I expect sometime to hear of a haunted subway, during rush hours. Edgar Allan Poe would say of me that I'm no artist, and don't know how to infuse atmosphere. One would think that I had never heard of the uncanniness of dark nights in lonely places. Some of the stories are of desperate plays for notoriety. I have a story now, not of doings in a graveyard, but in a department store. Bridgeport, Conn. -- staged on a staircase, with an audience of hundreds of persons, there was a very theatrical performance. A review of this melodrama was published in the Herald Tribune --

"The stabber who has terrorized Bridgeport for the last thirty months appeared this afternoon and claimed his twenty-third victim in a crowded down-town department store. The victim was Isabelle Pelskur, fourteen, 539 Main Street, messenger girl employed in the D.M. Read store. The girl was stabbed in the store where she was employed.

"The stabbing occurred at 4:50, just two minutes before closing time of the store. Already some of the store [94/95] doors had been locked, and the large crowd of shoppers were being ushered from the store. The employees were leaving their counters, and the victim had started up the stairs from the arcade side of the first floor to the women's dressing room.

"The girl had scarcely ascended more than half a dozen steps when she was attacked by an assailant who lunged his sharp blade into her side, causing a severe wound."

He got away. Nobody reported having seen him escaping. The girl could give only a "meagre" description of him. [95]

1. "Mystery of the street stabbings." London Daily Express, April 17, 1922, p. 1 c. 7. "Mysterious stabbings in London." People (London), April 23, 1922, p. 7 c. 5. For the explanation of a feud between rival criminal gangs: "Betting at daggers drawn." London Daily Express, April 18, 1922, p. 5 c. 6. The date of the attacks is not stated in the Daily Express, and it is not said the betting slips were found in their pockets, only that some were discovered in the possession of the man identified as "Pilbert."

2. "The Mumiai-Walla." London Daily Mail, September 26, 1923, p.13 c.6.

3. "Notes and extracts on miscellaneous subjects." Religio-philosophical Journal, 48 (n.13; May 17, 1890): 6-7.

4. "Is there a slasher?" New York Sun, January 14, 1892, p.1 c.2.

5. "Caught him red-handed." New York Sun, January 17, 1892, p.1 c.7 & p.2 c.1-2.

6. "Another mysterious murder in Vienna." Brooklyn Eagle, March 12, 1892, p.4 c.7.

7. "Stabbed eighty people." London Daily Mail, December 7, 1901, p.5 c.3.

8. "Motor-car in the Serpentine." London Daily Mail, April 11, 1927. "Motor-car in the Serpentine." London Daily Express, April 11, 1927.

9. "Taxi dives in the Thames." London Evening Standard, April 12, 1927.

10. "Girl thrown from car." London Evening Standard, May 6, 1927, p.12 c.3.

11. "Shot schoolgirl." London Observer, May 8, 1927. ""Girl shot in street." London Daily Mail, April 13, 1927.

12. "The work of a fiend." London Daily Mail, April 21, 1927. The discovery of the damage was made on the morning of April 19th, (not the 29th), at the Soho Grinding Wheel Works, (not Soho Grinding Works).

13. "Mystery of four shooting affairs." London Evening Standard, May 5, 1927, p.10 c.4.

14. "Attack on the Duke's train." London Sunday Express, May 8, 1927, p.1 c.6 & p.13 c.2. This is not the story related by Fort but deals with a similar window-smashing by an unfound missile.

15. New York Evening Post, (January 26, 1928, could not find here).

16. "Suspect phantom sniper of new attack on home." New York Herald Tribune, February 9, 1928, p.6 c.2.

17. For additional reports in February, 1928: "Camden phantom sniper shoots from automobile." New York Herald Tribune, February 11, 1928, p.4 c.6. "Boy, 11, terrorizes school by imitating town sniper." New York Herald Tribune, February 15, 1928, p.3 c.3. "Phantom sniper appears in Newark and Elizabeth." New York Herald Tribune, February 22, 1928, p.2 c.4.

18. "Shot schoolgirl." London Observer, May 8, 1927. "Girl shot in street." London Daily Mail, April 13, 1927. "Mystery of four shooting affairs." London Evening Standard, May 5, 1927, p.10 c.4. "Shooting puzzle." London Daily News, May 6, 1927. "Mystery of a shot." London Evening Standard, May 4, 1927. "Shot at motorist." London Sunday Express, May 8, 1927.

19. New York Herald, (February 2, 1916; could not find here).

20. "Mysterious Berlin crimes." Lloyd's Weekly News, February 21, 1909, p.7 c.4.

21. "Berlin outrages." Lloyd's Weekly News, February 28, 1909, p.9 c.2. One was fatally wounded, and three others were seriously wounded in these attacks

22. "Terrorised town." London Weekly Dispatch, February 10, 1907, p.5 c.5.

23. "Stabber cuts girl as 23rd victim in Bridgeport." New York Herald Tribune, August 28, 1927, p.19 c.1.

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