Wild Talents

A Hypertext Edition of Charles Hoy Fort's Book

Edited and Annotated by Mr. X

Chapter Twelve



FROM THE story of J. Temple Thurston, I pick up that this man, with his clothes on, was so scorched as to bring on death by heart failure, by a fire that did not affect his clothes.(1) This body was fully clothed, when found, about three o'clock in the morning. Thurston had not been sitting up, drinking. There was no suggestion that he had been reading. It was commented upon, at the inquest, as queer, that he should have been up and fully clothed, about three o'clock in the morning. The verdict, at the inquest, was of death from heart failure, due to inhaling smoke. The scorches were large red patches on the thighs and lower parts of the legs. It was much as if, bound to a stake, the man had stood in a fire that had not mounted high.

In the burning house, nothing was afire in Thurston's room. Nothing was found -- such as charred fragments of nightclothes -- to suggest that, about three o'clock, Thurston awakened by a fire elsewhere in the house, had gone from his room, and had been burned, and had returned [119/120] to his room, where he had dressed, but had then been overcome.

It may be that he had died hours before the house was afire.

It has seemed to me most fitting to regard all accounts in this book, as "stories." There has been a permeation of the fantastic, or whatever we think we mean by "untrueness." Our stories have not been realistic. And there is something about the story of J. Temple Thurston that, to me, gives it the look of a revised story. It is as if, in an imagined scene, an author had killed off a character by burning, and then, thinking it over, as some writers do, had noted inconsistencies, such as a burned body, and no mention of a fire anywhere in the house -- so then, as an afterthought, the fire in the house -- but, still, such an amateurish negligence in the authorship of this story, that the fire was not explained.

To the firemen, this fire in the house was as unaccountable as, to the coroner, was the burned body in the unscorched clothes. When the firemen broke into Hawley Manor, they found the fire raging outside Thurston's room. It was near no fireplace; near no electric wires that might have crossed. There was no odor of paraffin, nor was there anything else suggestive of arson, or of ordinary arson. There had been no robbery. In Thurston's pockets were money and his watch. The fire, of unknown origin, seemed directed upon Thurston's room, as if to destroy, clothes and all, this burned body in the unscorched clothes. Outside, the door of this room was blazing, when the firemen arrived. [120/121]

We have had other stories of unaccountable injuries. According to them, men and women have been stabbed, but have not known until later that they were wounded. There was no evidence to indicate that Thurston knew of his scorched condition, tried to escape, or called for help.

There are stories of persons who have been found dead, with bullet wounds, under clothing that showed no sign of passage of bullets. The police-explanation has been of persons who were killed, while undressed, and were then dressed by the murderers. New York Times, July 1, 1872 -- mysterious murder, at Bridgeport, Conn., of Capt. Colvocoresses -- shot through the heart -- clothes not perforated.(2) Brooklyn Eagle, July 8, 1891 -- Carl Gros found dead, near Maspeth, L.I. -- no marks in the clothes to correspond with wounds in the body.(3) Man found dead in Paris, Feb. 14, 1912 -- bullet wound -- no sign of bullet passing through his clothes.

I have come upon so many stories of showers of stones that have entered closed rooms, leaving no sign of entrance in either ceilings or walls, that I have not much sense of strangeness in the idea that bullets, or a knife, could pierce a body, under uncut clothes. There are stories of bullets that have entered closed rooms, without disturbing the materials of walls or ceilings.

Dispatch, dated March 3, 1929, to the San Francisco Chronicle -- clipping sent to me by Miriam Allen de Ford, of San Francisco -- "Newton, N.J. -- The county prosecutor's office here is baffled by the greatest mystery in its history. For days a rain of buckshot, at intervals, has been [121/122] falling in the office of the Newton garage, a small room with one door and one window. There are no marks on the walls or ceiling, and there are no holes in the room, through which the shot could enter."(4)

About two years later, being not very speedy in getting around to this, I wrote to the County Prosecutor, at Newton, and received a reply, signed by Mr. George R. Vaughan -- "This occurrence turned out to be a hoax, perpetrated by some local jokesters."(5)

There is a story, in the Charleston (S.C.) News and Courier, Nov. 12, 1886, not of bullets falling in a closed room, but, nevertheless, of unaccountable bullets -- two men in a field, near Walterboro, Colleton Co., S.C. -- small shot falling around them.(6) They thought that it was a discharge from a sportsman's gun, but the rain of lead continued. They gathered specimens, which they took to the office of the Colleton Press.

Religio-Philosophical Journal, March 6, 1880 -- copying from the Cincinnati Inquirer -- that, at Lebanon, Ohio, people of the town were in a state of excitement: that showers of birdshot were falling from the ceiling of John W. Lingo's hardware store.(7) A committee was appointed, and according to its report, the phenomenon was veritable: slow-falling volleys of shot, not of the size of any sold in the store, were appearing from no detectable point of origin. There was another circumstance, and it may have had much to do with the phenomenon: about five years before, somebody, at night, had entered this store, and had been shot by Lingo, escaping without being identified. [122/123]

In the R.P.J., April 24, 1880, a correspondent, J.H. Marshall, wrote, after having read of the Lingo case, of experiences of his, in the summer of 1867.(8) Bullets fell in every room in his house, forcefully, but not with gunshot velocity -- large birdshot -- broad daylight -- short intervals, and then falls that lasted an hour or more. Many bullets appeared, but when Marshall undertook to gather them, he could never find more than half a dozen. About the same time raps were heard.

How bullets could enter closed room is no more mysterious than is the howness of Houdini's escape from prison cells, though, according to all that was supposed to be known of physical confinements, that was impossible. In Russia, Houdini made, from a prison van, an escape that involved no expert knowledge, nor dexterity, in matters of locks. He was put into this van, and the door was soldered. He appeared outside, and the police called it an unfair contest, because, so to pass through solid walls, he must have been a spirit. Anyway, this story is told by Will Goldston, President of the Magicians' Club (London).(9)

I have a story of a horse that appeared in what would, to any ordinary horse, be a closed room. It makes one nervous, maybe. One glances around, and would at least not be incredulous, seeing almost any damned thing, sitting in a chair, staring at one. I'd like to have readers, who consider themselves superior to such notions, note whether they can resist just a glance. The story of the horse was told in the London Daily Mail, May 28, 1906.(10) If anyone wants to argue that it is all fantasy and lies, I think, myself, that it is more comfortable so to argue. One [123/124] morning, in May, 1906, at Furnace Mill, Lambhurst, Kent, England, the miller, J.C. Playfair, went to his stable, and found horses turned around in their stalls, and one of them missing. It is common for one who has lost something, to search in all reasonable places, and then, in desperation, to look into places where not at all reasonably could the missing thing be. Adjoining the stable, was a hay room: the doorway was barely wide enough for a man to enter. Mr. Playfair, unable to find a trace of the missing horse, went to the hay room doorway, probably feeling as irrational as would somebody, who had lost an elephant, peering into a kitchen closet. The horse was in the hay room. A partition had to be knocked down to get him out.

There were other occurrences that could not be. Heavy barrels of lime, with nobody perceptibly near them, were hurled down the stairs. This was in the daytime. Though occasionally I do go slinking about, at night, with our data, mostly ours are sunlight mysteries. The mill was an isolated building, and nobody -- at least nobody seeable -- could approach it unseen. There were two watch-dogs. A large water butt, so heavy that to move it was beyond human strength, was overthrown. Locked and bolted doors opened. I mention that the miller had a young son.

About the middle of March, 1901 -- that a woman was stabbed to death, in a fiction -- or in a scene like an imagined scene that did not belong to what we call "reality." The look of the story of Lavinia Farrar is that it, too, was "revised," and by an amateurish, or negligent, in some unknown way hampered, "author," who, in an at- [124/125] tempt to cover up his crime, bungled -- or that this woman had been killed inexplicably, in commonplace terms, and that, later, means were taken, but awkwardly, or almost blindly, and only by way of increasing mystery, to make the murder seem understandable in terms of common human experience.

Cambridge (England) Daily News, March 16, 1901 -- that Lavinia Farrar, aged 72, a blind woman, of "independent means," had been found dead on her kitchen floor, face bruised, nose broken.(11) Near her body was a blood-stained knife, and there were drops of blood on the floor. The body was dressed, and, until the post-mortem examination, no wound to account for the death was seen. At the inquest, two doctors testified that the woman had been stabbed to the heart, but that there was no puncture in her garments of which there were four. The woman, undressed, could not have stabbed herself, and then have dressed, because death had come to her almost instantly. A knife could not have been inserted through openings in the garments, because their fastenings were along lines far apart.

A knife was on the floor, and blood was on the floor. But it seemed that this blood had not come from the woman's wound. This wound was almost bloodless. Only one of her garments, the innermost, was blood-stained, and only slightly. There had been no robbery. The jury returned an open verdict.

Upon the evening of March 9, 1929 -- see the New York Times, March 10 and 11, 1929 -- Isidor Fink, of 4 East 132nd Street, New York City, was ironing something.(12) He was [125/126] the proprietor of the Fifth Avenue Laundry. A hot iron was on the gas stove. Because of the hold-ups that were of such frequent occurrence at the time, he was afraid; the windows of his room were closed, and the door was bolted.

A woman, who heard screams, and sounds as if of blows, but no sound of shots, notified the police. Policeman Albert Kattenborn went to the place, but was unable to get in. He lifted a boy through the transom. The boy unbolted the door. On the floor lay Fink, two bullet wounds in his chest, and one in his left wrist, which was powder-marked. He was dead. There was money in his pockets, and the cash register had not been touched. No weapon was found. The man had died instantly, or almost instantly.

There was a theory that the murderer had crawled through the transom. A hinge on the transom was broken, but there was no statement, as to the look of this break, as indicating recency, or not. The transom was so narrow that Policeman Kattenborn had to lift a boy through it. It would have to be thought that, having sneaked noiselessly through this transom, the murderer then, with much difficulty, left the room the same way, instead of simply unbolting the door. It might be thought that the murderer had climbed up, outside, and had fired through the transom. But Fink's wrist was powder-burned, indicating that he had not been fired at from a distance. More than two years later, Police Commissioner Mulrooney, in a radio-talk, called this murder, in a closed room, an "insoluble mystery." [126]

1. "Hawley fire mystery." Dartford Chronicle and District Times (Dartford), April 11, 1919, p. 7 c. 6 & p. 9 c. 3. Again, the name of the man was J. Temple Johnson, (not J. Temple Thurston).

2. "Tragical enigma." New York Times, July 1, 1872, p.4 c. 4-5.

3. "Was Carl Gross a suicide?" Brooklyn Eagle, July 13, 1891, p.6 c.4. For additional reports: "More mystery." Brooklyn Eagle, July 10, 1891, p.1 c.9. "Gross death investigated." Brooklyn Eagle, July 16, 1891, p.4 c.8.

4. "Mystery rain of buckshot in garage office baffles." San Francisco Chronicle, March 4, 1929, p.1 c.7.

5. The letter with Mr. Vaughan's reply written upon it are in Fort's notes, in the New York Public Library, and identified as F-84.

6. "A shower of small shot." Charleston News and Courier, November 12, 1886, p.3 c.1. For a report that the phenomenon was later discovered to be a hoax perpetrated by two visiting salesmen: "A shower of showers." Charleston News and Courier, November 20, 1886, p.8 c.4.

7. "Supposed manifestations of a murdered man's ghost." Religio-philosophical Journal, 28 (n.1; March 6, 1880): p.4 c.5.

8. "Another haunted house." Religio-philosophical Journal, 28 (n.8; April 24, 1880): p.8 c.3.

9. London Sunday Express, November 7, 1926.

10. "Daylight ghost." London Daily Mail, May 28, 1906, p.5 c.4.

11. "A mystery." Cambridge Daily News (England), March 16, 1901, p.3 c.5.

12. "Laundry owner slain at work in his shop." New York Times, March 10, 1929, s.1 p.24 c.7. "Hunt on in Harlem for tenement slayer." New York Times, March 11, 1929, p.27 c.5. Isidore Fink, (not Isidor), was shot at his laundry.

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