Colma, CA: The City of Souls

California: the land of sun and stars, beautiful beaches and lush national forests. Since its entrance onto the American stage 170 years ago people have flocked to the Golden State, drawn by a promise of adventure and opportunity. This was especially true around the turn of the century.

An unfortunate side effect of any rapid influx of people, especially back when daily life and travel was much more hazardous, is that more people eventually means more death. You may even end up with more bodies than you’re prepared to deal with.

Enter the small town of Colma, where the dead outnumber the living 1000 to 1. Known as California’s City of the Dead, aka City of Souls, aka the last place you’d want to be during a zombie uprising. The last nickname may have been made up but think about it… 1000 to 1.

The story of how Colma became The City of the Dead is woven into the broader story of California itself. Mexico ceded the territory to the United States in 1848 and within a year’s time, gold was discovered in the Sacramento River. This put the brand new state on the map in more than just the literal sense. The famous California Gold Rush had begun.

Over a very short span of time, hundreds of thousands of Americans hopped on the Oregon Trail and headed west hoping to strike it rich. By 1860, San Francisco’s population tripled. Not only did the rush attract eager prospectors, but the population boom made the city a place one could find a job. Recent immigrants to America saw opportunity as well and poured in almost as fast as the gold seekers.

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Portsmouth Square, San Francisco 1851. source

Some who came west found the opportunity they sought, but many more didn’t have such luck. The grand majority of people looking for gold didn’t find so much as a nugget. They remained packed in tight living conditions with thousands of others like them, who had little to show for their efforts. Conditions worsened for these people as hygiene and clean food and water became harder to maintain. Areas like this became a powder keg of sorts, where any number of contingencies could lead to ignition.

Inevitably these contingencies would eventually manifest in four major events that would devastate the Golden City. The first of these took the form of a bubonic plague outbreak in 1900 killing hundreds. Cremation was uncommon at the time for religious reasons so the bodies just piled up. The city’s cemeteries had so few vacancies that new burials were banned the same year.

Not long after, in 1906, San Francisco was hit with a powerful earthquake that leveled the city in minutes. Destruction was massive as buildings had not been constructed to withstand this kind of stress at the time. The death toll for this second disaster reached into the thousands, making the recent plague look like a case of the sniffles.

A direct result of the earthquake came in the form of a great fire that burned what was left of the city. Over the course of four days approximately 25,000 buildings stretching over 490 city blocks were reduced to ash.

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Fires burn what was left of San Francisco after the earthquake. source

The fourth and farthest reaching disaster came twelve years later as San Francisco had all but recovered from the past two tumultuous decades. In 1918 the global Spanish Flu pandemic emerged in Europe, America and Asia before spreading worldwide. The flu claimed around 675,000 American lives and an estimated 20-50 million the world over.

Despite the years of devastation, San Francisco maintained its popularity. The city continued to grow as developers simply built over the rubble left behind after the earthquake and fires. Given its location on a peninsula, the city could only expand so far. As a result, the somewhat limited real estate was becoming more and more valuable. Suddenly all of the wide open spaces devoted to graves for all that had perished started looking too good to the developers to just leave to the dead.

In order to get the ball rolling, rumors were spread that the graveyards within the city were a source of contagion. The exact nature of the contagion was never divulged, just that it was making people sick and the culprit had to be purged before more San Franciscans fell victim. And if a few real estate developers made some money in the process, so be it.

Eventually enough political pressure had been levied that something had to be done. The land south of the city was largely undeveloped at the time and there were few people living that far away from the general populous. San Francisco’s funeral parlors began buying up large swaths of land and started digging.

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Digging up graves in San Francisco to be relocated. source

In 1924 the nameless area was incorporated into San Mateo County, filing as Colma. A new town was born, stretching over just two miles of land with fewer than 1000 residents, most of whom worked in the funeral industry. Over time more than 150,000 bodies were exhumed and moved south to Colma to be reburied.

Today the number of dead has swelled to around 1.5 million, while the living population remains relatively low at about 1,600. Although San Francisco remains the number one draw on the peninsula, Colma has become a popular stop for tourists. The dead are more of a footnote on the Town of Colma website however, which attempts to draw more attention to its “old-world charm,” museums, and shopping centers than to the millions of decomposing bodies in their backyards.

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Some Colma City merch. source

Visitors to Colma will find the city itself actually embraces its claim to fame. One can tour all 17 of its impeccably manicured cemeteries and leave with a shirt that reads “It’s Great to Be Alive In Colma!” The graves serve as a sort of history of San Francisco over the past century. You should recognize a few of Colma’s most famous residents like Levi Strauss, Wyatt Earp, William Randolph Hearst, and Joe DiMaggio.

So next time you find yourself in the Golden State be sure take a walk among the tomb stones in Colma. Like 99.9% of the town’s population you may even decide to stay forever.

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Famous head stones of Colma. source

SOURCES:

The New York Times “The Town of Colma, Where San Francisco’s Dead Live”

All That’s Interesting “Colma, California: The City of the Dead”

Town of Colma Website

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Guilty Until Proven Innocent: The Story of James Joseph Richardson

Welcome back to Murder Monday, ya’ll. I’m going to break my pattern on local cases and sexually motivated crimes this week, which should make this one easier to get through for some of you. Unfortunately, this case is beyond fucked for many other reasons.

This case involves the deaths of numerous children, racial discrimination, and the flaws of our criminal justice system.

I have taken a particular interest in wrongful conviction cases recently, thanks to “Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom” by Revolver Podcasts. So I did some googling, and came across the particularly interesting case of James Joseph Richardson.

The United States has the highest rates of incarceration in the world, with around 2 million of its citizens currently behind bars. 1 percent of these convictions (approximately 20,000 people) are wrongfully convicted – 1 for every 25 convicts on death row are incarcerated for crimes that they did not commit. 4.1% of defendants on death row are proven guilty before meeting their death, thanks to organizations such as The Innocence Project. Since 1973, only 144 defendants sentenced to death in the U.S have been exonerated, which leaves an unknown number of innocent inmates who have met their death thanks to the death penalty.

I personally am all for capital punishment, and if you’ve read some of my prior posts on here you may already know that. I want every murderer, sex offender, and child abuser to watch that needle hit their vein, to feel their insides burn until their heart stops. I want every murderer to face a firing squad and watch the blood flow from their wounds as they take their final breath. I want every sex offender to stare into the eyes the person controlling their death, and feel the fear that their victims felt while they inflicted themselves upon them. I want every single child abuser to suffocate through inhaling toxic gas until they fucking croak. In my opinion, in a perfect world – it would be much easier to just kill off those sickos, and save the innocent. Unfortunately, just as much as it has helped us, our criminal justice system has failed us time and time again. Resulting in wrongful convictions, death sentences placed upon the innocent, and even worse – the real monsters that committed these crimes are still out there, free to rape, abuse, and kill. So before I continue, I encourage you to check out some of the links at the bottom of this post and donate to one of these projects for innocent inmates, or at the very least, take some time to read about the cases and educate yourselves.

African Americans are only 13% of the American population but a majority of innocent defendants wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated are black males. They constitute 47% of the 1,900 total exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations (as of October 2016). Just because they have been exonerated does not justify that innocent people have spent time in prison. This should never happen in the first place.

Meet James Joseph Richardson.

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Arcadia, Florida – 1967

James Joseph Richardson was a migrant farm worker, working on an orange grove. He and his wife, Annie Mae Richardson, had 5 children together. Annie Mae had two children from a previous marriage, and they raised the seven children together, who ranged in age from 2-8.

October 25, 1967

James and Annie Mae were sent word that one of their children had fallen ill, and they left the groves to report to the hospital. It was unknown to them at the time, but six of their children were already deceased by the time they arrived. Their seventh and only remaining child would pass away the next day. They died after eating a poisoned lunch containing the organic phosphate pesticide parathion.

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The couple’s neighbor, Bessie Reece, took care of the three youngest children while the other four attended school. That day, the children returned home from school to Bessie and their siblings at lunch time. They ate a meal of rice and beans that their mother had prepared for them the night before and returned to school. The children started displaying strange symptoms and a concerned teacher brought it to the attention of the principle, who decided to take the four sick children to the hospital. Another teacher went to their home to check on the other children, and found them to be ill as well. All seven children, from 2 years old to 8 years old, would pass away in the next 24 hours.

‭Joseph H. Minoughan of the Arcadia Police Department was the first officer to arrive at the hospital. After determining that all of the children were from the same family, he headed to the home to search for any evidence. All he found in relation to poison was a type of bug repellent that was not related to the chemicals found in the children. Four officers searched the family home on five separate occasions and no poison of any kind was found – until the next day, when a two pound sack of parathion was discovered in the shed out behind the house. The police immediately suspected that whoever placed the bag there must have been the murderer – but Bessie Reece (the children’s babysitter) started pointing fingers at random locals.

The day after this, Officer Cline (an investigating detective on the case) came forward with news that James Richardson had discussed life insurance policies on the children the night before their poisoning. Yet statements from Richardson and his insurance salesmen were conflicting. The children’s funeral was held at the end of the week, and two days later Cline charged Robinson with seven counts of murder. The town started buzzing that Cline was just looking for a big break to have his name noticed in the police department.

During the trial, accusations of Richardson having children who passed away in another state came out, but were never confirmed. The insurance salesmen was brought to the stand, but it was never determined if he was invited to the Richardson home or if he was soliciting door to door the night before. Evidence of Bessie Reece being out on parole was released, but reasons for her prior convictions were not specified. The judge provided evidence of Annie Mae and James both taking lie detector tests, which indicated that James “had knowledge” of the poisoning.

After hearing that the judge in Richardson’s case was so openly accusing him of being guilty, John S. Robinson (a 30-year-old white lawyer) came forward offering help. He told Richardson he believed his case was being handled poorly, and offered to reach out to the NAACP for help as well. Richardson accepted this support and chose Robinson as his lawyer. Richardson confided in Robinson that Officer Cline has repeatedly called him the N-word, and told him to plea guilty to get an easier sentence. He was pushing him, and Robinson wouldn’t allow that. He was able to have Richardson’s bail dropped from the initial $100,000 down to $7,500 and Richardson was released on bail.

James Joseph Richardson was sentenced to death for the murders of his children, but was saved in 1972 when the U.S Supreme Court ruled the death penalty as “unconstitutional.” He was still in for a life in prison, and would be eligible for parole in 1993.

He was convicted guilty by a jury of peers that was entirely Caucasian.

1988

Remember the babysitter of the children who had last seen them during lunch? The babysitter who was out on parole for unknown crimes? Bessie Reece was living in an assisted living home with Alzheimer’s disease, and reportedly admitted to the murders hundreds of times — but no one ever took her seriously due to her mental illness. Bessie Reece was a convicted murderer who had killed her husband 10 years prior, and guess how she did it? You nailed it – poison. She died in 1992 before her confessions were ever further investigated. The word of her prior conviction and her confessions got around, and efforts to free James Richardson were sparked back up yet again.

1989

October 25, 1989, a hearing was held in Arcadia in the same courthouse where Richardson had been convicted more than 21 years earlier. His lawyers presented the insufficient evidence and testimony used to sentence their client, and spoke of the grave injustices he faced in prison. There was evidence of a cover-up by Sheriff Frank Cline, State Attorney Frank Schaub and his deputy, Treadwell, as well as the local judge. It was determined that Richardson did not have a fair trial, and he was released to the custody of his lawyers.

Richardson found a job working on a health resort, but unfortunately was struggling with his health and mental state and it did not last very long. His wife Annie Mae who had remained faithful for most of his time in prison, decided to divorce him. Shortly after, he had another heart attack – he had already suffered through one in prison, and received open heart surgery in the prison hospital. Richardson filed a claim under Florida’s wrongful conviction compensation law, which provides compensation for wrongful imprisonment of $50,000 a year. It is unclear whether he ever received this. In 2014, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed into law House Bill 227 – which provides compensation to a wrongfully incarcerated person who was convicted and sentenced prior to December 31, 1979, and who is otherwise exempt from other state provisions for compensation because the case may have been reversed by a special prosecutor’s review and nolle prosequi rather than being overturned by a court. The law is so narrowly circumscribed that it is likely that Richardson will be the only individual eligible for compensation under it. He was expected to be awarded $1.2 million – yet he never received any of it.

This innocent man had his young children murdered in his own home – poisoned right under his nose. He buried seven tiny caskets, and was arrested two days later. He served over 20 years in prison, some of which on death row, for crimes that he did not commit. He suffered from violence in prison and botched surgeries for his heart conditions. He lost his wife, his home, the job he loved. He sat in a jail cell for 20 years staring at a wall, with no sunlight, for almost 8,000 days. He used to get paid to pick oranges on the grove in the sunlight every day before traveling home to his seven children and the love of his life. His life, his loves, everything he once knew, was stolen from him. And for absolutely no fucking reason.

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There are cases far more captivating then this, such as Making a Murderer, The Staircase, Amanda Knox, Casey Anthony, The Keepers – you know, a list of white people who very clearly committed the crimes at hand but for some reason have thousands of people rooting for their innocence and dumping millions of dollars into making documentaries about them. These cases, whether you believe the defendants to be guilty or not, were supported by factual concrete evidence in a court of law. This is presented to you in the documentaries – and I’m not saying I believe every single one of them to be guilty, but it is up to you to decide whether you believe them or not. Now, if a documentary paints the defendant as innocent, you’re probably going to believe that they are innocent. Just like if you are on the jury, in the courthouse, and the prosecution paints the defendant to be guilty. It is the right of every convict to face a fair trial. That is how this is supposed to work.

No one ever served time for the murder for the seven Richardson children, all under the age of 8. So again, in choosing which wrongful convictions to support, please remember the urgency of the innocent inmates being proved innocent. For every day that the wrongfully convicted are locked away, the real monsters walk free with another chance to kill or assault. There are so many factors to the importance of contributing to the research and funds for the release of the innocent.

Being an inmate in California for one year, as of 2017, costs more then a years tuition at Harvard University ($75,000). The average taxpayer cost for inmates nationwide is around $31,000 per inmate a year. In a recent study, after death penalty case costs were counted through to execution, there was said to be a median cost of $1.26 million. Non-death penalty case costs were counted through to the end of incarceration, the median cost was $740,000.

Take some time to educate yourself and donate money or even just time to some of these projects for the innocent. You are already currently paying for their incarceration with your tax dollars.

https://www.innocenceproject.org

See you next week.

Sources:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Joseph_Richardson

https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/03/07/519012758/black-people-are-wrongly-convicted-of-murder-more-often-data-shows

Harvard is Home to Book Bound in Human Flesh

If you thought books bound in human skin were only found in the Evil Dead franchise, you would be wrong.

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A flesh-bound book titled Des destinees de l’ame, which translates to Destinies of the Soul, has resided at Harvard University’s Houghton Library for over eight decades. The book, which is about the destiny of the soul in the afterlife, was gifted by writer Aresene Houssaye to his friend Dr. Ludovic Bouland in the mid-1880s. In the 1930s, Dr. Bouland donated the book to the library with a note stating that he bound the book with the skin of an unclaimed female patient. According to Bouland, “a book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering.”

Binding books with human skin is a practice known as anthropodermic bibliopegy, and it was actually once rather common. Reports of this practice date all the way back to the 16th century. The confessions of executed criminals were often bound in their skin, and families would occasionally bind books with the skin of deceased loved ones as a memorial to them.

The skin came from the back of the patient, who died of “apoplexy,” according to Bouland’s note. Apoplexy is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a “stroke” or “gross hemorrhage into a cavity or into the substance of an organ.” Bouland’s note goes on to say that he preserved this piece of flesh, though it is uncertain whether he harvested it with the knowledge of using it to bind the book or if he simply decided to save it for a special occasion.

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Des destinees de l’ame, Photo courtesy of The History Blog

In 2014, with the use of several testing methods, experts were able to confirm that the book is indeed bound with human skin. One of the methods used is called peptide mass fingerprinting, and according to Bill Lane, the diector of the Harvard Mass Spectrometry and Proteonics Resources Labratory, this particular method was able to clearly distinct that Des destinees de l’ame was not other parchment sources like sheep, cattle or goat. Although it matched the human reference, Harvard scientists cannot rule out that the book could be bound in skin from another closely related primate like great apes and gibbons. Guess we’ll have to take Bouland’s word for it.

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A page of Bouland’s note, photo courtesy of The History Blog

The book is believed to be the only example of anthropodermic bibliopegy at Harvard.

SOURCES

Featured photo courtesy of crienglish.com

BBC News

Raw Story

The Kensington Strangler

Welcome back to Murder Monday.

For all our local supporters, if last week’s episode didn’t give you the creeps about some familiar spots in Philadelphia – let me try again.

Meet the Kensington Strangler.

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November 3rd, 2010

The body of Elaine Goldberg, a 21-year-old nursing student, was found half naked and strangled to death in a vacant lot in Kensington. Police originally thought the cause of death to be a drug overdose, judging from the area and the victim’s past. Elaine had just celebrated 30 days sober from heroin, she was on the right track with nursing school and had family and friends supporting her fully. Her body was found near evidence of drug use and paraphernalia, which also pointed towards an overdose. Her death was ruled suspicious, though, after police noticed that her hips had been propped up and posed postmortem – indicating a sexual assault or motive. It was determined that she died from strangulation, and that she had been sexually assaulted after her death. DNA was found inside of her, thought to be that of the killer.

November 13th, 2010

Another suspicious death was reported in Kensington. A body was found in the doorway of a vacant row home. It was surrounded by human feces, used needles, trash, and used condoms. The victim was identified as 35-year-old Nicole Piacentini, a mother of four. Her hips were also positioned upwards following her death by strangulation. Police now knew they had a serial rapist on their hands.

December 15th, 2010

The body of 27-year-old Casey Mahoney was found battered and strangled in the same neighborhood as the recent attacks. Her body was positioned upwards and naked from the waist down, with a bag over her face.

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In this same time period, four other women escaped an attack of a similar nature involving a sexual assault and strangling. Police presence was heightened, and local sex workers and drug offenders were on high alert. A $37,000 reward was put out as an offer to the public for information leaving to the suspect’s attest.

“Get this psycho off the streets of Philadelphia”
– Mayor Nutter (ur boy)

January 2011

DNA evidence and the involvement of the FBI lead to an arrest. Antonio Rodriguez, a previously convicted drug offender out on parole, confessed to the murders of Elaine Goldberg, Nicole Piacentini, and Casey Mahoney. At the time he was also the suspect of at least 3 other sexual assaults. According to forensic psychologists, Rodriguez fit the profile of a sexual serial killer.

Sexual serial killers often choose strangulation as he method for their killings because it is up close, and personal. Using your bare hands gives you an unmeasurable sense of personal strength and control. They could look their victim in the eyes as they watch the life leave them, all on their own timing. It is common for sexual serial killers and deviants to choke their victims to the point of death and then release them for air, repeatedly. The sense of control over someone’s life in the grip of your hand is said to be sexually stimulating for these people. FBI’s profiling for this case also stated that this type of crime would have been committed by a 25-35 year old man – but Rodriguez got an early start, apparently.

What stood out particularly to authorities following the arrest of Rodriguez was that he strictly crossed a racial line in every one of his attacks. In most cases, white serial killers have white victims, and black serial killers have black victims, etc. (to be clear – this is solely based on SERIAL attackers. Interracial crime is actually approaching an all time high in America currently). On the other hand, most serial killers also have a particular type, they hunt – they pick and chose. It is more common for serial sex offenders to stay within their own race. Rodriguez absolutely had a type, even in his suspected surviving victims. All of his victims were 20-40 year old slim white female sex workers. After his arrest, he claimed he “didn’t mean to kill them”…

Antonio Rodriguez was convicted of three counts of rape and murder, and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and abuse of a corpse. He is serving three consecutive life sentences.

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Stay safe out there, neighbors.
See you next week.

sources:

http://philadelphiacriminallawnews.com/2010/12/casey-mahoneys-death-linked-to-previous-kensington-murders.html

https://abcnews.go.com/US/confessed-kensington-strangler-antonio-rodriguez/story?id=12648308

https://www.cnn.com/2012/08/16/us/pennsylvania-strangler-conviction/index.html

Death in the Victorian Era

Welcome to #WEIRDWEDNESDAY! As much as we love true crime over here at The Hex Files, we started to feel as though we were neglecting the other stuff we love too — hauntings, aliens, urban legends, strange history, etc. And so, #WeirdWednesday was born. Without further adieu, here’s the first installment of our new weekly series!

A few weekends ago, I attended the Bloodmilk Night Market and had the opportunity to chat a little with the artist behind Handsome Devil Puppets. In addition to the bewitching finger puppets she was selling at the Market, she also showed me some work that was inspired by Victorian mourning dolls. As soon as I got home, I hit the Internet because I just had to know more. I soon found out mourning dolls are just the tip of the iceberg for Victorian funeral customs. They had a strange yet alluring fascination with death that I felt compelled to explore further and of course, compile some of my favorite examples for your reading pleasure.

Mourning Clothing

It is honestly not surprising that the Victorians had such a fascination with death. Due to the lack of modern medicine, death was extremely prolific in their lives. It was everywhere. It seems, though, most of the dramatic traditions surrounding death began when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861. He was a victim of typhoid fever, and poor Victoria was so heartbroken by the loss she mourned him for the rest of her life. In fact, Victoria (and her entire court) dressed in mourning clothes for the first three years after Albert’s death.

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Photo courtesy of ranker.com

The tradition of wearing mourning clothes for an extended period of time actually carried over outside of the Queen’s court to the common people. When mourning the death of a loved one, people would wear black and other muted colors  for one to two years after the death to represent their grieving period. Due to the high mortality rates of the time period, it was not uncommon for people to wear these colors for the majority of their lives as they mourned the deaths of multiple family members.

Women were particularly subjected to these traditions. They wore black for the first one to two years after a death, depending on their relation to the decedent, and also had to isolate themselves from their community. As the years went on, women could transition slowly from black to purple to gray as they became reintegrated with society.

Mourning Dolls

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Photo courtesy of ranker.com

Just as they do now, little girls and dolls went hand-in-hand in the Victorian era. They served many purposes: they helped young girls exercise their maternal instincts, served as a toy, and even prepared them to execute a wake and funeral. Wait… what?

Young girls were given all the necessary supplies to host a wake and funeral in what was called a “death kit.” The kits included black mourning clothes and a small coffin for the doll. The girls would practice dressing the doll, laying it out for visitation, staging funeral and even comforting the doll’s mourners. This is perhaps something I may have enjoyed during my own childhood, but is definitely too morbid for the average modern child. However, putting on fake funerals served the same purpose as preparing a girl for motherhood: it was just what women did, and therefore, they needed to be prepared.

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Victorian wax doll, photo courtesy of listverse.com

In addition to preparing girls for various aspects of life, dolls served another morbid purpose for the Victorians. If a family experienced the death of an infant or child and had some wealth to their names, they could have a wax doll created in the likeness of their deceased loved one to aid in their grieving process. To make the wax doll seem as legitimate as possible, it was dressed in the deceased child’s clothing and wore a wig of the deceased child’s hair.

Over-the-Top Funeral Services

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Photo courtesy of kathleenmaca.com

In general, Victorian funerals were extremely ostentatious events. They involved funeral directors, invitations, hearses drawn by black horses, large floral arrangements, etc. People became competitive with one another for who could host the most showy services for their deceased loved one. As you can guess, this could get pretty expensive. People, especially those of lower classes, often had to begin saving for their family member’s funeral while the person was still alive and healthy in order to afford the elaborate event that came to be expected of the time. Sometimes hey would pass on everyday necessities like food and heat in order to put money aside for their eventual funeral.

People would even hire professional mourners to attend the service to build-up the grief. The mourners, often called “mutes,” would hover around the casket, looking desolate and dismal. Charles Dickens’ fictional character Oliver Twist was a mute hired to “perform” at children’s funerals.

“Saved by the Bell”

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Photo courtesy of unc.edu

Most of us are familiar with the phrase “saved by the bell” (and we’ve probably all watched the television show at some point in our lives). However, you probably don’t realize that this commonly used phrase is said to have been inspired by a Victorian funeral custom.

In Victorian England, the dead were occasionally buried with a rope in their hand that was tied to a bell outside their grave. If the person was pronounced dead incorrectly and regained consciousness after burial, they could ring the bell for help. This particular style of burial was known as a “safety coffin.” Although there is no evidence to show that a life was ever saved by one of these devices, I can appreciate their extra (and I mean extra) precautions.

Protection from the “Resurrection Men”

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Photo courtesy of cvltnation.com

For those who were actually dead, the Victorians took precautions to ensure they remained in their graves. During the Victorian era, grave robbing was a big problem. Grave robbers were known as “resurrection men,” and their theft was driven by the high demand for cadavers for medical training and research. During this time, it was against the law to leave your donate your body to science after your death.

The resurrection men would typically dig into the end of the grave where the head was, tie a rope around the corpse’s neck and then drag it from its grave. Often, the grave robbers would leave behind the shroud and any other items accompanying the body in the grave. This was because, should one be caught stealing the deceased, sentencing was lighter if only the body was taken.

However, protection against body snatchers was reserved for the wealthy, as such protection could be expensive. For those who were able to afford it, mausoleums, vaults and iron-encased grave sites were built to protect their loved one’s body from being stolen.

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William Burke and William Hare, photo courtesy of irishcentral.com

However, sometimes there was very little that could protect you from being a victim of the body-snatchers, as some eventually decided to skip the exhumation process entirely and resorted to murder as a means to obtain bodies to sell. William Burke and William Hare, often referred to as simply Burke and Hare, sought out those who were ill, homeless or prostitutes — essentially, those who would not be missed — to be their victims.

As outlandish  and morbid as some of the Victorians’ funeral traditions may seem, you can also probably tell that many of them have carried over to modern-day funeral customs in some shape or form. Personally, I’m glad murder for the sake of medical research has not been one of them. See you guys next week.

SOURCES

Ancestry.com

The Phrase Finder

Ranker

SleuthSayers

The Frankford Slasher

Welcome back to Murder Monday.

This week I’m going to do my first *unsolved* crime – and if you’re from our home base area, he might be right in your backyard.

Meet the Frankford Slasher.

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Not to be confused with the Kensington Strangler (we’ll talk about him another time).

8:30 a.m., August 26, 1985

A half nude and clearly deceased female was found by transit workers at the SEPTA train yard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the section of the city known as Frankford. The woman’s clothing was removed from the waist down and she was positioned in a provocative manor, with her legs open and her blouse pulled up to reveal her chest. The next day she was identified as Helen Patent, 52, of Parkland, PA. The autopsy revealed that the cause of her death was from 47 stab wounds to her head and chest after she had been sexually assaulted. She also had one deep slash across her abdomen, leaving her organs fully exposed as she died. She was last seen by her ex-husband at their home seven days prior. She was known to frequent Frankford area bars.

January 3rd, 1986

Ten miles away from where Helen Patent’s body was found was the discovery of Anna Carroll. On the 1400 block of Ritner Street in South Philly, 68-year-old Anna Carroll was found lying on the floor of her bedroom after someone found her front door open on a cold day. She was also positioned in a provocative manor and nude from the waist down. She died from six stab wounds to the back. There was also a gaping postmortem wound going from her breastbone to her groin, and there was a kitchen knife left inside of her. It appeared her attacker had literally tried to gut her like a fish. Anna Carroll was also known to frequent Frankford area bars, but this connection was not made until the next murder occurred.

Christmas Day, 1986

Nearly a year later, 64-year-old Susan Olszef was found murdered in her home on Richmond Street after the front door had been left open. She had also been stabbed in the back six times.

After the third crime, the connection was made that all three victims had been regularly seen at the Frankford Avenue bar Goldie’s. Amongst many other problems that got in the way of this murder investigation, the nightlife at the time was booming, not only from the prosperity that the El was bringing to town but also the convenience of the area. This area was well known for its drugs and bars and although it appeared run down, it had also been the scene of the film ‘Rocky’ which seemed to have made people less weary of it.

7:30 a.m., January 8th, 1987

Jeanne Durkin’s body was discovered beneath a storage truck just off of Frankford Avenue. She had been stabbed in the back, chest, and buttocks 74 times. She was lying in a pool of blood, nude from the waist down, positioned with her legs spread. Blood was spattered along the fence next to the truck, and an autopsy showed she had been sexually assaulted. Jeanne Durkin lived on the streets, and was most commonly seen sleeping in the doorway of a bakery just two doors down from Goldie’s bar (not surprised).

By the fourth victim, it was finally now clear that Philadelphia had a serial killer on their hands, but they were busy in the midst of figuring out several other series of crimes as well. The Frankford Slasher was active right around the same time that Gary Heidnik AND Harrison “Marty” Graham were busted. The city was in over its head.

January of 1988

Police had reported to the local papers that the crimes might not be related despite similar circumstances, but changed their mind in the following year. In January came the murder of Margaret Vaughan, a 66 -year-old woman who had been evicted that same day from an apartment just 3 blocks away from where Jeanne Durkin’s body was found. Margaret Vaughan was stabbed 29 times, and, you guessed it, positioned in a provocative manor. Police came up with a sketch of a man who was seen drinking with Margaret the night before at Goldie’s. He was a barmaid, a Caucasian man with a round face who walked with a limp and wore glasses. No one came forward to identify the man.

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January 19th, 1989

Theresa Sciortino, 30, was found in her apartment stabbed 25 times. She was found three blocks away from the fifth victim, and lived just one block off of Frankford. Police discovered that Sciortino and Durkin, two of the victims, had both recently been in several psychiatric institutions and were under outpatient care and treatment at the time of their murders. Sciortino was found in a pool of her own blood on the kitchen floor, lying face up, with 25 stab wounds caused by a kitchen knife left at the scene next to a bloodied 3-foot long piece of wood that had been used to sexually assault her. Oh, and guess what else — she was a regular at Goldie’s (ya’ll are seriously trippin’ for even letting women leave this bar by themselves at this point….. the fuck is wrong w u).

2 a.m., April 29, 1990

A patrol officer discovered the nude body of Carol Dowd in an alley behind Newman’s Sea Food at 4511 Frankford Avenue. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed 36 times. One of the wounds went across her stomach, and her intestines were left spilled out of her body. Carol Dowd had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was in and out of mental institutions, something else she had in common with other victims in the slashings.

Police began interviewing employees of the fish market and came across Leonard Christopher, who worked there and lived nearby. He encountered the police in the alley way that morning and stated he figured they were there investigating another burglary because there had been several recently. He spoke further with police upon finding out that it was, in fact, a murder investigation. Leonard Christopher admitted that he knew one of the earlier victims, Margaret Vaughan. They questioned his girlfriend, who could not form an alibi for him. He claimed to have been home alone that night, but witnesses placed him at the bar that night with Dowd.

May 5th, 1990

Leonard Christopher was arrested and arraigned on charges of robbery, abuse of a corpse, murder, and possession of an instrument of crime. A witness said they had seen him sweaty with a large knife in his belt the night of the most recent murder. His coworkers and landlord vouched for his good character. A search of his apartment turned up clothing with blood on it, but his coworkers said it was only due to him cleaning up the mess from the crime that was left in the alley at his place of work. One witness claimed to have seen him exiting that same alley way that night, but another witness said they had seen Dowd leaving the bar with a “date” in his vehicle.

June 20th, 1990

Christopher was ordered to stand trial for the murder of Dowd and the evidence was deemed sufficient. Neighbors were relieved to know the spree was over and that they would be safe.

But nope! Not quite.

Leonard Christopher was a young black man, not the middle aged white man that was seen with all of the other victims around the time of their murders, yet he was jailed without parole for the murder of Dowd on September 6, 1990.

September 6th, 1990

You fucking guessed it. While the suspect believed to be responsible for the murders was in jail for murder without parole, another body was found. Michelle Denher, 30-years-old, was found murdered in her efficiency apartment just one block off of Frankford. Interestingly enough, Michelle Dehner has previously been a suspect for the killings because she had been seen fighting over a blanket with another victim. She went from suspect to victim when she was sexually assaulted and stabbed 23 times with a final gaping slash to her stomach. This murder was only three blocks from the most recent attack, and on the same street as Sciortino’s murder. Michelle Denher was ALSO mentally ill. Locals referred to her as “crazy Michelle” – she would wander from bar to bar on Frankford, and if she wasn’t too busy drinking through her days, she’d sell pretzels on the street. A day and a half before her murder she was seen leaving a bar with a middle aged white male who fit the original description of the Frankford Slasher.

After this incident, the public outcried for the release of Leonard Christoper. In his court cause they described him as a “Rambo style killer” even though at the time of his arrest, he had no visible injuries, he cooperated with police investigations, there was no murder weapon recovered, and no so called “Rambo knife” – but he was sentenced anyway. Leonard Christopher is currently serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Numerous women pointed to SEPTA workers as suspects, and the case took twists and turns that got completely out of hand. Theories formed that the murders could have been related to witchcraft, because at the time there was an apparent female cult presence in the neighborhood. They even practiced in a park nearby.

Investigation brought no new leads, and the case turned cold.

Thanks for tuning into this week’s Monday Monday. Enjoy your commute from the El after work tonight knowing that a sexually deviant stomach slashing serial killer picked his victims off of Frankford and never got caught. It was only 28 years ago. I’m sure he’s out there somewhere.

Here’s an absurd link I found on YouTube of a guy singing a song about the Frankford Slasher. God, I love the internet.

See ya next week!

sources:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankford_Slasher

https://www.google.com/amp/s/massmurderers.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/frankford-slasher/amp/

Everything You Need To Know About ‘The Staircase’ Owl Theory

If you’re a true crime fan, you’ve probably watched (or perhaps are currently watching) Netflix’s latest docuseries craze ‘The Staircase.’

‘The Staircase’ documents the events following the death of Kathleen Peterson, a woman found in a pool of her own blood at the bottom of a staircase in the Durham, North Carolina mansion she shared with her husband Michael. Naturally, Michael is accused of being responsible for her suspicious death, and the documentary follows his journey as he defends his innocence in the untimely passing of his wife.

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The staircase where Kathleen Peterson mysteriously met her end, photo courtesy of thegeekden.com

After watching ‘The Staircase,’ I was left feeling immensely torn. I just couldn’t fathom how Michael cold have beaten Kathleen to death without causing any fractures to her skull. At the same time, the photos of Kathleen at the bottom of that staircase seemed far too bloody to constitute an accidental fall down a couple of steps. And then I found what I am almost ashamed to admit may be the most plausible theory surrounding the death of Kathleen: she was murdered by an owl.

In 2008, Larry Pollard, an attorney and neighbor of the Petersons, proposed what has come to be known as the “Owl Theory.” He believes Kathleen suffered injuries from an owl attack that led to her death at the bottom of the stairwell.

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Larry Pollard, photo courtesy of newsobserver.com

If you watched the documentary, you’ll recall the struggle between prosecutors and the defense to explain the large lacerations to Kathleen’s scalp without any associated skull fracture. The prosecution argued Michael had beaten Kathleen over the head with a blow poke while the defense claimed she sustained this injuries during an accidental fall down the stairs. Pollard proposes a third explanation by stating that these lacerations actually occurred from an owl swooping down onto and attacking Kathleen on that fateful evening of December 9, 2001.

According to Pollard, Kathleen was attacked by an owl (not an uncommon occurrence, apparently) as she arranged reindeer Christmas decorations outside. He believes the owl may have mistaken the decorations as prey, leading it to initiate the assault. Kathleen ran into the house to take cover, attempted to go up the stairs, but fell backward down them. He suggests that in her drunken, injured and partially conscious state, she tried to get up several times, causing the infamous blood splatter on the walls of the stairwell.

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Diagram of Kathleen Peterson’s autopsy, photo courtesy of wral.com

As crazy as this may seem, maybe it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. According to the SBI report, Kathleen actually had a microscopic feather and sliver of wood from a tree limb in her hand, along with her own hair, when they examined her body. Assuming they had nothing to do with her death, examiners disregarded these findings.

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the director of ‘The Staircase,’ also views the owl theory as being a possibility. According to Lestrade, “The first time I heard about the owl theory, I really laughed. But when I started looking at it and I met with Larry Pollard… It might be the more plausible explanation. How can you explain all the cuts and lacerations and the absence of fractures? When you start thinking about the owl theory, and the kind of injuries she had, you start thinking maybe there is something there.”

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Michael Peterson with his lead defense attorney David Rudolf, photo courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Even Michael Peterson’s lead defense attorney, David Rudolf, said the following regarding the owl theory: “When you step back and really start getting familiar with the fact that there have been literally scores if not hundreds of documented instances of owl attacking the heads of people… and you look at the wounds and you compare them with the talons of an owl, it starts having some real credibility.”

The theory has also been backed up by multiple expert witnesses. University of Minnesota professor of veterinary medicine Dr. Patrick T. Redig, who stated such an attack is “entirely within the behavioural repertoire of large owls.” Kate P. Davis, director of Raptors of the Rockies, reported that the lacerations “look very much like those made by a raptor’s talons, especially if she had forcibly torn the bird from the back of her head.” Davis goes on to say this would also explain why Kathleen’s body presented with her hand holding clumps of her hair that also contained the feather and wood sliver.

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The lacerations to Kathleen’s scalp juxtaposed with an owl talon, photo courtesy of owltheory.blog.lemonade.fr

And, as I stated above, owl attacks are not uncommon, especially in Durham. On NBC’s Dateline episode of the Peterson case, they interviewed a man who was once attacked by an owl. He stated the attack felt like being hit with a baseball bat, and that he bled so much he thought he had lost his eye.

If you are interested in learning more about Pollard’s owl theory, I highly recommend listening to episode 9 of the podcast Beyond Reasonable Doubt?. The episode is only 17 minutes long but thoroughly explores this bizarre yet surprisingly plausible theory.

All in all, it appears as though the only person who knows what happened in the stairwell the night of December 9, 2011 is buried beneath a beautiful rose bush in Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery. If only walls could talk — what would they say?

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Kathleen Peterson’s grave, photo courtesy of newsobserver.com

SOURCES

Esquire

The News & Observer

Vulture