Thursday, October 27, 2016


The Ghostly Story of the First Woman to Run for President

In 1872, American history changed forever when a woman named Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to try and become President of the United States. She had an uphill battle ahead of her. As a woman, she wasn’t even allowed to vote. If elected, she would have been too young at the age of 34 to serve, but it didn’t matter because she only received a handful of votes. Even her running mate, Frederick Douglass, voted for President Ulysses S. Grant. On Election Day, she was in jail for slandering the most famous minister in the country.

Victoria Woodhull, the first American woman nominated for the presidency -- and practicing Spiritualist medium

When Hillary Clinton was nominated as the Democratic Party’s choice for the presidency in 2016, Victoria Woodhull, a largely forgotten novelty in the historical record, was suddenly in the spotlight for the first time in more than a century and a half. She began to be lauded for her trailblazing advocacy of woman’s rights – including the movement for “free love” and divorce – and her work in the suffrage movement of the day. But what most people neglect to mention is that Victoria Woodhull didn’t achieve her greatest notoriety as a presidential nominee, but rather as a Spiritualist medium who started the first female brokerage firm on Wall Street by charging some of the nation’s wealthiest men to contact the dead.

When someone once asked shipping magnate, financier, and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt for financial advice, he replied, “Do as I do, consult the spirits!” His conduit between this world and the next was Victoria Woodhull.

Born Victoria Clafflin in Homer, Ohio, in September 1838, her childhood was a nightmare. Her mother was an eccentric who had “memorized the Bible backward and forward.” Her father was a con artist who abused his family and was one described by a neighbor as a “one-eyed, one-man crime spree.” He fled town after allegedly burning down his own mill for the insurance money and stealing petty cash from the post office. Locals took up a collection so that his family could follow after him. Victoria was the seventh of ten children, four of whom did not live to adulthood. She had only a few years of formal education before being put to work in her father’s traveling medicine show. She and her younger sister, Tennessee, gave séances, performed as fortune tellers, and sold fake elixirs to the gullible. 

At age 15, she was married for the first time to a drunken, philandering physician named Canning Woodhull. They had two children together, but divorced in 1864. She later married two more times. 

In 1868, Victoria and Tennessee moved to New York City, where business and industry were growing rapidly in the years after the Civil War. Millionaires were being made in the shipping, construction, and railroad businesses, and through a series of fortunate coincidences that put the sisters in the right place at the right time, they met tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was the richest man in America, had an eye for beautiful women, and was obsessed with contacting his late mother. Victoria soon became his personal spirit medium. 

Cornelius Vanderbilt, Victoria's wealthy benefactor

Within two years, using the stock advice that was gleaned from the “spirits” during her séances with Vanderbilt, Victoria and Tennessee became known as the “lady brokers.” Vanderbilt helped them to establish a stock brokerage office, the first of its kind for women of that era. The sisters did very well financially and realized a sizable profit. 

With some of their earnings, they established a weekly newspaper that was designed to cast attention on topics that were of interest to feminists of the time, such as equal rights and suffrage. In 1871, Victoria and her political positions had become so well-known that she appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to speak on behalf of women’s rights. In doing so, she became the first women to ever testify before a congressional committee. 

But her stance on women’s rights was not what earned her the nickname of “Mrs. Satan.” That came about because of her support of another controversial topic of the time: free love. She believed in the right of a woman “to love who I want for as long as I want,” then to divorce. Under the law, she said, marriage for women was slavery. By the age of 31, she was a millionaire, but when she walked into Delmonico’s restaurant without a male escort, she was refused a seat. She tried to vote in 1871, claiming that the 14th Amendment guaranteed women that right. As she had told the congressional committee, “we don’t need the right to vote, we have it.”

Newspapers and religious leaders insulted Victoria with vile nicknames, editorials and cartoons, including this one, which dubbed her "Mrs. Satan." 
But it was in 1872, when Victoria Woodhull truly earned her place in American history when she ran for president. It was a daring move that caught the attention of the press, politicians, and the public. It was the first time that a woman – and a Spiritualist – sought the highest office in the land. She won the nomination of the Equal Rights Party. The former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was named as her running mate, but if he knew it, he never acknowledged the nomination and campaigned for President Grant. 

Even though Victoria could have never been elected, none of that mattered. Her goal was to call attention to women’s rights issues – and to herself. Few regarded Victoria’s candidacy seriously; but the press was more than happy to write about her efforts because it sold newspapers. During her run, she did gain support from a few women’s rights groups and from some Spiritualists, but her radical position toward free love alienated most of those who would have helped her. Conservative newspapers and religious organizations began accusing every one of America’s four million (or more) Spiritualists of supporting free love and while it was a false charge, it inflamed passions. 

One of Victoria's campaign posters
Things turned ugly during her campaign. Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, had attacked Victoria’s notion of free love from his Brooklyn pulpit. Shortly before the election, Victoria’s newspaper printed a story that revealed that Beecher was having an adulterous affair with a parishioner, Mrs. Elizabeth Tilton. The result of the allegations was a full-blown scandal and an embarrassing trial for Beecher on adultery charges. 

The newspaper story may have been accurate, but under a federal law against mailing “obscene” material, Victoria was arrested and jailed, where she spent Election Day. By the way, the winner of the 1872 election was Ulysses S. Grant, who went on to a second term in office.

In the wake of the scandal, her arrest, and the election, Victoria was called a “vile jailbird” by Harriet Beecher Stowe and an “impudent witch.” Others called her much worse. She was later cleared at trial but the events ruined her health, her finances, and her reputation. In 1877, she moved to England, where she married a banker, still supported liberal causes, and lived comfortably until her death in 1927.

She seemed destined for historical oblivion. The Spiritualists wanted nothing to do with her because they believed that she had used the movement to simply further her radical women’s rights agenda. Following the Civil War, when so many people were seeking mediums to contact their loved ones, Victoria Woodhull had soured the movement’s reputation. The bereaved were more concerned with speaking with their loved ones than with listening to speeches about social injustice.

Victoria’s radical position on free love had caused rifts within the women’s rights movement, as well. Even bold feminist leaders like Susan B. Anthony, who had once welcomed Victoria, later distanced herself. When Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote a six-volume history of the suffrage movement, Victoria’s contributions were reduced to one brief mention. 

She would have likely have been forgotten altogether if not for another, far different woman who made history in 2016. 

Friday, September 9, 2016


The Long Fall of Fatty Arbuckle

On September 9, 1921, the death of a young movie actress named Virginia Rappe would make newspaper headlines around the world. The scandal that followed her death had nothing to do with the fame, or lack of it, of the pretty actress – it was her link to the man who was known as “America’s Funnyman,” Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Virginia’s death destroyed the career of the man who was then America’s best-known comedic actor and created one of Hollywood’s first lingering ghosts.

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

Fatty Arbuckle was among the first celebrities to be swallowed by the bright lights of Hollywood. There are few actors who have crashed and burned in the way that Arbuckle did. The rotund comedian, nicknamed “Fatty” by his fans because of his 300-pound girth, achieved his original success in the 1910s. He was more popular than even Charlie Chaplin and at the time of his downfall in 1921, he was earning over $1 million a year. But it all came to a crashing halt because of a scandal. Arbuckle had it worse than most. It was bad enough to fall from grace because of one’s mistakes and the scandal that might follow, but it was another thing entirely to be used by an ambitious district attorney for his own political gains, and to be savaged by the Hearst newspapers, which sensationalized Fatty’s plight and made a bundle in circulation sales. Making things even worse, Arbuckle’s own studio led the behind-the-scenes intrigue that sabotaged his career, some say as revenge against a star who had become too big to control.

Roscoe Arbuckle was born (weighing in at a whopping 16 pounds) on a small farm in Smith Center, Kansas, on March 24, 1887. The following year, his family relocated to Santa Ana, California, and opened a small hotel. In the summer of 1895, Roscoe made his stage debut with a traveling theater troupe. The shy and overweight youngster immediately felt at home on the spotlight. Four years later, his mother died and the boy was sent to live with his father, who was then residing in Watsonville, California. When his father vanished a short time later, a local hotel owner took Roscoe in. When not working at odd jobs, he was tutored by a teacher who lived in the hotel. However, he preferred appearing on amateur night at the town’s vaudeville theater to reading and writing. In 1902, he was reunited with his remarried father in Santa Clara and helped out the family by waiting tables in his father’s restaurant.

Roscoe got into show business a few years later, working in vaudeville and burlesque shows in California and the Pacific Northwest. During a 1908 summer stock engagement in Long Beach, California, he met a singer and dancer named Armanta “Minta” Durfee. The two of them were married and toured the Southern California vaudeville circuit. At some point, Arbuckle decided to try his luck in the fledgling movie industry.  

Legend had it that Arbuckle was an overweight plumber when Mack Sennett discovered him. The story goes that he had come to unclog the film producer’s drain, but Sennett had other plans for him. He took one look at Roscoe’s hefty frame and offered him a job. It never happened this way – but it made a great story. Arbuckle’s large frame and bouncing agility made him the perfect target for Sennett’s brand of film comedy, which included mayhem, pratfalls, and pies in the face. He became a member of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company in April 1913. He was soon making dozens of two-reelers as a film buffoon and audiences loved him. He made one film after another, all of them wildly successful, and managed to earn a fortune.

In the summer of 1916, Arbuckle joined the East Coast-based Comique Film Corporation as a star and director with an annual income of more than $1 million. The following March, he attended a banquet in Boston hosted by his studio for regional theater exhibitors and this became Fatty’s first brush with scandal. After the dinner, Arbuckle retired to his hotel room, however, company executives (including founder Adolph Zukor) and others continued partying at Brownie Kennedy’s Roadhouse, a tavern and brothel in nearby Woburn, Massachsetts. Almost immediately, news circulated in Boston about the orgy, and the gossip claimed that Arbuckle had been present. In fact, some stories had him dancing on tables with prostitutes in the roadhouse’s backroom. Because of the publicity, the city’s mayor raided the brothel. After paying a fine, the madam was released. However, the stories about what went on that night were too racy to simply fade away. Zukor was informed that unless money changed hands, the bawdy activities were sure to make national news. Zukor paid $100,00 to keep the matter quiet and in the process, did nothing to clarify that Arbuckle had not been present that night.

By October 1917, Arbuckle (along with most of the rest of the movie industry) was back in Hollywood. By now, his marriage to Minta had fallen apart and she remained in New York to pursue her acting career. Although separated, their divorce was not finalized until 1925.
With 1920’s “The Round Up,” Arbuckle began making full-length movies. In January 1921, he signed a lucrative new contract with Paramount Pictures, which led to Adolph Zukor pushing him into an exhausting schedule that ended with him filming three movies at the same time in the summer of 1921. By Labor Day weekend, Fatty was worn out and planned to go to San Francisco to relax over the holiday. Zukor asked him to remain in town to take part in an exhibitors’ convention that weekend and when Roscoe refused, Zukor was enraged. Arbuckle didn’t let this bother him and he went on the trip anyway.

Fatty was joined on his trip up the coast by actor friend Lowell Sherman. Then, director Fred Fischbach, whom Arbuckle had known for years, invited himself along. The three men set out on early Saturday morning, September 3, and arrived in San Francisco later that evening. Fatty was driving his flashy new Pierce-Arrow automobile and took his friends to the luxurious St. Francis Hotel. Fatty took three adjoining suites on the 12th floor.

On Sunday, the trio did some sightseeing and visited friends and on Monday, Labor Day, the party got under way. Fischbach got in touch with a bootlegger connection and soon, the guests and the liquor began to arrive. Among the guests was Fred’s friend, film talent manager Al Semnacher, who was in San Francisco for the weekend, trying to concoct evidence for his pending divorce. He had brought along Bambina Maude Delmont, a woman with an extensive police record involving blackmail, prostitution, and swindling, to help him out. A friend of Bambina’s also came along -- a little-known actress named Virginia Rappe.

Virginia Rappe

Virginia came to Hollywood in 1919. She was a lovely brunette whose unfortunate reputation preceded her. It was no secret in Hollywood that she was a girl with “loose morals,” which was saying a lot for the film colony in those days. Rumor had it that she had already had several abortions by the time that she was 16, before giving birth to a child that that she had given away. She caught the eye of Mack Sennett and wrangled some movie roles on the Keystone lot, where she met Arbuckle. It was also rumored that Virginia had worked her way through the cast and crew of the company and at one point, she passed around a rather sensitive infestation of body lice that was so severe that Sennett had to close the studio and have it fumigated. In spite of her drunken escapades and reports of unprovoked nudity, she did earn some film roles, including “Fantasy,” “Paradise Garden,” and “Joey Loses a Sweetheart,” in which she appeared with Arbuckle. Virginia was noticed by William Fox, shortly after winning an award for the “Best-Dressed Girl in Pictures,” and he took her under contract. There was talk of her starring in a new Fox feature and Virginia certainly seemed to be on her way up.

In 1920, Virginia began dating director Jack White. When he left Hollywood for New York, she was left with an unwanted pregnancy to deal with. Her manager, Al Semnacher, suggested that she have an abortion in San Francisco, where there was less chance of the Hollywood gossips finding out about it. Since she was going up north and Semnacher had plans with Bambina Delmont that weekend, he arranged for her to drive there with him on September 3.

Salesman Ira Fortlois arrived at Roscoe’s suite at noon on Monday to find the party already in full swing. Arbuckle was reportedly not happy to discover that Fred Fischbach had invited Semnacher, Delmont, and Rappe to the party, thanks to their questionable reputations, but he was enjoying himself too much to press the issue. At one point during the party, Fischbach suddenly left, claiming that he had business elsewhere. The crowd grew to a couple of dozen people. The young women were downing gin-laced Orange Blossoms, some of the guests had shed their tops to do the "shimmy," guests were vanishing into the back bedrooms for sweaty love sessions, and the empty bottles of booze were piling up.

Meanwhile, Delmont, who was well-liquored, disappeared into Lowell Sherman’s suite with him and locked the door. Virginia, roaring drunk, began tearing off her clothes and screaming hysterically. Because Delmont and Sherman were locked in room 1221, and room 1220 had no bathroom, Virginia was rushed into room 1219, Fatty’s suite, to use the facilities there. Soon, unaware of what was happening, Roscoe tried to enter his bathroom, only to find Virginia vomiting into the toilet. He helped her up and convinced her to lie down and rest on his bed. Next, he went in search of some ice. He hoped that the ice would quiet the woman down as well as determine, by holding a piece of ice against her thigh to see if she reacted to the chill, whether she was suffering from hysterics.

By now, Fischbach had returned. As Roscoe applied the ice to the wailing woman’s leg, Maude Delmont walked into the room. Rappe yelled that she was dying – words heard by several other female party guests. Next, the bathtub in room 1219 was filled with cold water to cool off the distraught young woman. But Virginia suddenly awoke and began screaming at Arbuckle. “Stay away from me!” she cried and then turned to Delmont, “What did he do to me, Maudie?” Virginia was bodily placed in the cold water tub and she seemed to settle down. A short time later, she was taken to another room down the hall where Delmont could take care of her. The hotel doctor was summoned to the room a little while later, but he determined that Virginia was merely drunk.

The party continued, with Arbuckle leaving the hotel for a time to arrange to have his car shipped back to Los Angeles. He planned to return by boat. By the time Fatty returned, another doctor was administering morphine to Virginia. When the physician asked Delmont what had transpired, she calculatedly created a fabricated tale that she later told the police – but never swore to in court.

According to her version of events, Fatty, wearing only pajamas and a bathrobe, had steered a drunken Virginia into his suite at around 3:00 p.m. on Monday afternoon. Delmont stated that the festivities in the adjoining suites came to a halt when screams were heard in the bedroom. She also said that weird moans were heard from behind the door. A short time later, Fatty emerged with ripped pajamas and he told the girls, "Go in and get her dressed. She makes too much noise." When Virginia continued to scream, he yelled for her to shut up, or "I’ll throw you out the window." Delmont and another showgirl, Alice Blake, found Virginia nearly nude and lying on the unmade bed. She was moaning and told them that she was dying. Bambina later reported that they tried to dress her, but found that all of her clothing, including her stockings and undergarments were so ripped and torn, "that one could hardly recognize what garments they were."

Arbuckle knew nothing of the story that Delmont was spreading and on Tuesday, September 6, he checked out of the St. Francis, generously covering everyone’s expenses. By now, Virginia, at Delmont’s direction, was being treated by another doctor, this one associated with the private Wakefield Sanitarium. Having been assured that Virginia was in no danger, Arbuckle and his friends returned by ferry to Los Angeles.

On September 8, the still-stricken Virginia was transferred from the hotel to the Wakefield Sanitarium, where she died the next afternoon. An illegal postmortem exam was conducted on her body and her ruptured bladder and other organs were placed in specimen jars, which would prevent a proper autopsy by the legal authorities. Convinced that she could turn the entire incident into something she could profit from, Delmont swore out a complaint against Arbuckle with the police. Back in Hollywood, Roscoe’s new film, “Gasoline Gus,” had just opened successfully and at the same time, he learned of Virginia’s death. Shocked, he volunteered to return to San Francisco. Paramount, meanwhile, panicked at the possible repercussions of the weekend, hired attorneys to represent their high-priced star.

From the start, the newspapers were filled with lurid headlines (“Fatty Arbuckle Sought in Orgy Death”) and graphic, false details supplied by Delmont. Newspapers around the country were revealing shocking “truths” about the alleged events in the death of the virtuous Virginia Rappe at the hands of the lust-crazed Fatty Arbuckle. Everything from Arbuckle’s past was raked up, including the false story that he had been party of the 1917 orgy in Massachusetts and new stories claimed that he had killed Virginia because she had rebuffed his advances. They also claimed that he had killed her because his immense weight pressed down on her too hard during sex. And it was no longer just sex, the newspapers told a nation of stunned fans, but "strange and unnatural sex." According to reports, Arbuckle became enraged over the fact that his drunkenness had led to impotence, so he ravaged Virginia with everything from a Coca-Cola Bottle, to a champagne bottle, to an over-sized piece of ice. Other stories claimed that Fatty was so well-endowed that he had injured the girl, while others stated that the injury had come when Fatty had landed on the slight actress during a sexual frolic.

Soon, churches and women’s groups were crusading against the “lustful” Arbuckle. In Hartford, Connecticut., a group of angry women ripped down a screen in a theater showing an Arbuckle comedy, while in Wyoming, a group of men opened fire in a movie house where another Arbuckle short was being shown. Thanks to the newspapers, Arbuckle had been found guilty in the public’s eyes before charges have ever been filed against him. Angry, and increasingly boisterous, voices were calling for Hollywood to clean up its act. Finally, Arbuckle’s films were pulled from general release. Arbuckle had been placed on suspension by Paramount, invoking the morals clause in his contract.
San Francisco District Attorney Matthew Brady hoped the Arbuckle case would be his ticket to the governor’s office. The coroner’s inquest met on September 12 with Brady demanding that Arbuckle be charged with murder. By then, he knew that most of what had been printed in the newspapers were lies but since his vow to prosecute the movie star to the fullest extent of the law had already been featured in the press, he proceeded with the case. Over the next few days, with Arbuckle jailed without bail, a special grand jury voted to indict the actor on a manslaughter charge. It was their belief, based on the evidence, that Arbuckle had used “some force” that led to Virginia’s death. On September 28, a judge ruled that the defendant could be charged with manslaughter, but the rape charge was dismissed. Arbuckle was released on his own recognizance and returned to Los Angeles. He was accompanied by his estranged wife, Minta, who had arrived to offer moral support.

The trial began on November 14, 1921, with Roscoe taking the stand and denying any wrongdoing. The defense introduced evidence of Virginia’s past medical problems (including chronic cystitis) and her recurrent bouts of abdominal pain that often led to her yanking off her clothing. The key witness, Maude Delmont, never took the stand to continue her fanciful claims against Arbuckle – something that the defense pointed out several times to the jury. After much conflicting testimony, the jury remained deadlocked after 43 hours of deliberation. One juror was adamant that Fatty was guilty “until hell freezes over.” The judge declared a mistrial.

Unwilling to give up, D.A. Brady pushed for another trial. One of the tactical errors this time around was made by the defense. Overly confident that Arbuckle would be acquitted, they did not have him testify again and simply read his prior testimony into the record. This made Arbuckle look cold and uncaring about the young woman’s death and made the wrong impression on the jury. In addition, his attorney, assured of victory, never bothered to make a closing statement. After many more hours of deliberating, the jury was deadlocked again, although this time they had almost voted in favor of conviction. Fatty had not been convicted, but he was paying for his “crime.” He had been forced to sell his home in Los Angeles, along with his luxury automobiles, to pay lawyer’s fees that the studio was no longer footing the bill for.

Unbelievably, Brady took Arbuckle to trial a third time. This time, Fatty took the stand and patiently answered questions about the fateful party for three hours. The defense introduced evidence about Virginia’s questionable past, the prosecution’s intimidation of witnesses, as well as the fact that the prosecution still had never produced Maude Delmont to testify. This time, the jury adjourned for only five minutes and returned with a vote of acquittal and a written apology:

"Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel a grave injustice has been done him and there was not the slightest proof to connect him in any way with the commission of any crime. We wish him success, and hope that the American people will take the judgment of fourteen men and women that Roscoe Arbuckle is entirely innocent and free of all blame.”

Fatty may have been free, and cleared by a well-meaning jury, but he was hardly forgiven by Hollywood. Paramount canceled his $3 million contract and his unreleased films were scrapped, costing the studio over $1 million. Fatty’s career was finished after he was banned from the movies by Will Hays and his Hollywood Production Code. Hays wanted to show that he meant business when it came to cleaning up the movies and decided to make Arbuckle an example. Strangely, Hays acted at the urging of Adolph Zukor and Paramount Pictures. Years later, it was also discovered that Zukor had made a mysterious payment to D.A. Matthew Brady on November 14, 1921. It was assumed to be a possible bribe to control the case’s outcome – although not in Arbuckle’s favor. Some have also theorized that Zukor, eager to regain control over Arbuckle, had masterminded the St. Francis Hotel party through Fred Fischbach (who mysteriously vanished for a time), but that the situation, which was simply to make Arbuckle look bad, got wildly out of control.

By Christmas, Hays had rescinded his ban on Arbuckle in Hollywood productions, but civic groups and the press remained opposed to his return to film. Because of this, the studios just couldn’t afford to have his name connected to their pictures. Only a few friends, like Buster Keaton, remained by his side. In fact, it was Keaton who suggested that Arbuckle change his name to "Will B. Good." Actually, Arbuckle did adopt the name William Goodrich in later years and he was able to gain employment as a gag man and as a comedy director. Friends helped him as best they could, but the next few years were difficult ones. He tried stage and vaudeville work and opened a club and a hotel, which closed down during the Depression. He married and divorced a second time, and then found happiness with his third wife, actress Addie McPhail. In 1931, Roscoe appeared in a fan magazine article, begging to be allowed to return to the screen. Hal Roach offered him a contract, but pressure from several women’s groups caused the deal to fall through.

After again turning to vaudeville, Arbuckle was given a contract by New York’s Vitaphone Studios head, Sam Sax, to star in a 1932 film short. The “comeback” Vitaphone two-reeler was so successful that Sax gave Fatty a contract to make five more, in preparation for a feature film with Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, Arbuckle died on the night following the completion of his last Vitaphone short “Tomalio” on June 29, 1934.

Even in death, Fatty Arbuckle could not find peace. The slanderous stories about him still exist today and despite evidence presented to the contrary, he continues to be perceived as the “lustful rapist” portrayed in newspapers of the day.

At the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, a lonely stone marks the grave of Virginia Rappe and the site is said to be home to her ghost. Little explanation needs to be offered as to why Virginia’s spirit might be a restless one. She lost not only her life over the course of the Labor Day Weekend of 1921, but she lost a promising career and her tattered reputation, as well. Was it a fate that she brought on herself? Perhaps, but the press was nearly as savage to the sickly and misguided young actress as it was to Fatty Arbuckle. 

While most newspapers painted Virginia as an “innocent” victim of Arbuckle’s lust-crazed advances, the Hearst newspapers were especially cruel to the actress and managed to turn the affair into a national scandal. While Heart’s papers were always known for their yellow journalism and lurid headlines, the Arbuckle case received even more coverage than normal. As it happened, Heart’s affair with a starlet named Marion Davies became big news at the same time that details began to emerge about Fatty Arbuckle and Virginia Rappe. Marion Davies’ career began to suffer and rumor had it that Hearst gave the go-ahead to his papers to exploit every Hollywood scandal of the time, including Fatty’s, to take the focus off of himself and Davies. This made the unlucky Virginia Rappe an easy target.

For this reason, it’s not surprising to hear reports that her spirit still lingers behind. Visitors who come to Hollywood Forever Cemetery have reported hearing a ghostly voice that weeps and cries out near Virginia’s simple grave. It is believed by many to be her ghost, still attached to this world, and still in anguish over her promising career, which was, like her life, cut short before it could really begin.

Friday, August 26, 2016


Strange Tales of Pennsylvania Folk Magic & Murder

Strange things were afoot in Pennsylvania in the early twentieth century. A brutal murder in 1928 began a “hex scare” in the region, turning the authorities and the general public against what had always been seen as a common custom – the folk magic practice of “powwowing.” Prior to the bloody crime, the belief in and practice of folk magic was seen as nothing more than a quaint holdover from less sophisticated times. After the murder, though, it became a threat. Practitioners were no longer seen as backward or ignorant; now they were dangerous. The folk medicine that had been used for centuries was now a false treatment that kept people from getting the real medical care they needed. There was little room for superstition and hex doctors in the modern world. To city folk, it seemed impossible to believe that anyone still believed in magic in the modern world of the 1920s, but among the back roads, farms, and hollows of rural Pennsylvania, magic was alive and well.

Pennsylvania hex magic dated back to the earliest days of the colony, linked largely to the Pennsylvania German (or Dutch, as they are often called) immigrants and their descendants. The German settlers held strongly to elements of their culture, and blended customs of the Old and the New World to form a distinct identity. Even their language became a unique dialect. Though there were a great many different religious denominations among the German settlers, there was a common tradition of folk magic that was practiced by all, with the exception of the “Plain Dutch,” such as the Amish, who rejected the practice. For large numbers of these Germans, the belief in folk magic was entwined with their Christian beliefs.

At one end of the folk magic scale was “powwowing,” which had nothing to do with the Native American ceremonial practice of the same name. Powwowers performed magical-religious folk healing and drew their healing power from God. Generally, Powwowers provided cures and relief from illnesses, protection from evil, and the removal of hexes and curses. They also located lost objects, animals and people, foretold the future, and provided good luck charms. To carry out their practices, they used charms, amulets, incantations, prayers, and rituals. It was generally believed that anyone could powwow, but members of certain families were especially adept at it. These families passed the traditions down from generation to generation.

At the other end of the scale was “hexerei” or witchcraft. Practitioners of black magic drew their power from the Devil or other ungodly sources. The witch harassed neighbors and committed criminal acts with supernatural powers. Sometimes witches were called hex doctors. The term “hex doctor” can be confusing because it can imply many things. At times, the term was applied to powwowers who were also knowledgeable in the ways of hexerei and were skilled at battling witches and removing curses. These hex doctors fell into a sort of gray area between a witch and a powwower. Sometimes they cast hexes for a price or out of revenge. It was not uncommon for someone to seek out one hex doctor to remove the curse of another. For many Pennsylvania Dutch, and certainly for outsiders, powwowers and witches could not easily be placed into categories. There were many who labeled the use of any folk magic as witchcraft that was strictly forbidden by their religious beliefs.

Powwowers and hex doctors often worked against one another, with the common person caught in the middle. It was in this setting that folk magic flourished for more than two centuries.

Witches targeted their victims in many ways. Since hexerei was based around a farming society, many of the witch’s attacks were directed at animals and crops. They were often blamed when cows did not produce milk, when seemingly healthy animals mysteriously died, or when crops failed. When witches went after humans, they used a variety of torments. They were commonly suspected of causing illnesses, especially conditions that lingered and caused a person to waste away over time. A witch could also use spells to launch invisible attacks, causing seizures or fits, the sensation of being pricked or stabbed, or the feeling of being choked or strangled. Witches could also cause a run of bad luck for any individual that they attacked. The witch could even appear in the form of an animal, like a black cat, so that they could move about undetected and harass their victims. Needless to say, just about any type of misfortune could be blamed on a witch.

In addition to spoken words, the written word was also used for magic. Written amulets and charms were common, and many Pennsylvania Germans carried them on their person. Amulets usually included a written version of a protective charm and perhaps verses from the Bible. The paper they were written on was usually folded into triangles. If not carried personally, such amulets might be hung in a house or barn.

Ritualized objects were also used. These objects were actually mundane items, but they often acquired a special purpose. Sometimes the objects would be used as a surrogate for the afflicted or for the disease itself. Much of German folk magic depends on the principles of contagion and transference. Basically, the idea is that the evil or the disease is contagious, and can be transferred away from the afflicted person and into an object. The object could then be disposed of in a prescribed manner to keep the contagion from spreading. Traditionally, this kind of magic is known as sympathetic magic – and it often worked, as long as the person afflicted truly believed that it would.

Since the powwowers and hex doctors depended on charms, formulas, and incantations that were passed down through their families, they often collected them into “recipe” books, which contained the collective knowledge of a family line of powwowers. By the middle 1800s, these homemade volumes were joined by published volumes that came into common usage. Folk healers had always invoked and used the Bible in their magic, but they increasingly supplemented their knowledge with sources published by other powwowers.

The most famous and widely read of these books was compiled by a powwower named John George Hohman in 1819. Hohman was a German immigrant who settled on a farm in Berks County, Pennsylvania. As a side business, he published broadsides and books about the occult and medicine aimed at the local German population. In time, he published the most widely read grimoire (book of magic) in America. The compilation of spells, charms, prayers, remedies and folk medicine was called Der lang verborgene Freund, or The Long Lost Friend. It was the first book of powwow magic to achieve wide circulation. It has been in print in either German or English continuously since 1820.

Aside from being a collection of charms and recipes, the book itself became a talisman. In what was an example of a resoundingly successful early marketing ploy, buyers of the book were told they would be protected from harm merely by carrying it. In the front of each edition was an inscription that read: “Whoever carries this book with him, is safe from all enemies, visible and invisible; and whoever has this book with him cannot die without the holy corpse of Jesus Christ, nor drown in any water, nor burn up in any fire, not can any unjust sentence be passed upon him. So help me. +++”

The bulk of the book consisted of remedies and charms to cure common illnesses, fevers, burns, toothaches and other ailments. It also contained recipes for beer and molasses and even had a charm for catching fish. Many of the charms in the book were meant to provide protection from physical harm from weapons, fire, witches, and thieves. It also provided instructions on how to keep animals in a certain location, heal livestock and cattle, and even cure rabid animals. The Long Lost Friend soon became the primary reference for anyone attempting to understand the practice of powwow, and it gained a place of honor on almost every powwower’s and hex doctor’s shelf.

As an opposite number to the helpful charms of The Long Lost Friend was the far more dangerous book of witchcraft, The Sixth & Seventh Book of Moses. Drawn from the tradition of European grimoires and ceremonial magic, The Sixth & Seventh Book of Moses were purported to have been written by Moses himself, and allegedly contain secret knowledge that could not be included in the Bible. Described as two separate books, they are almost always published together in one volume, first appearing in Pennsylvania in 1849. The book soon gained an evil reputation among the German population and those who were familiar with its lore. It was associated with hexing because the text provided instructions on how to conjure and control spirits and demons. It also contained spells and incantations that were beneficial to the user, as well as spells that would duplicate some of the biblical plagues of Egypt, turn a staff into a serpent, and other miraculous happenings. Much of the volume is made up of reproduced symbols that were allegedly copied from old woodcuts. Some copies were printed, at least partially, with red ink. A few hand-copied editions were alleged to exist that had been written in blood.

Though hex doctors frequently acquired the book to enhance their reputations, merely owning the volume was believed to be dangerous, and if a hex doctor actually read it – that could be fatal. Reading the book was believed to attract the attention of the Devil or at the very least, cause the reader to become so obsessed with the book that they could do nothing but read it. The only way to break the obsession – should such a thing occur – was to read the entire book in reverse, starting at the end and working back to the beginning.

To modern readers, all of the stories and claims of spells, hexes, magic books, and incantations may sound rather silly, but rest assured, they were all common traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It might sound hard for us to believe today, but people at that time and place readily accepted such ideas. And that turned out to be the most crucial point of the “Rehmeyer” Hex Murder -- those involved truly believed in magic. They believed that it worked and could ruin their lives.

And they would do anything to try and stop that from happening.

The “Hex Murder,” the strange killing of Nelson Rehmeyer, captivated the people of the region and sold newspapers across the country. The story began with a young powwower named John Blymire, who was born in 1895 and learned the art of German folk magic at a young age. His family had been powwowers for at least three generations and probably longer. Although he did poorly in school, Blymire established a good reputation as a healer in York County. Starting at the age of seven, he began providing healing remedies and cures. Despite his early success, though, he began to believe that there was a shadow hanging over him.

One day, as he was leaving the cigar factory where he worked, an apparently rabid dog began running toward some of his fellow workers. Blymire approached the dog and spoke some words of a spell. The dog’s mouth allegedly stopped foaming and the animal became subdued. Blymire patted its head and the animal followed him excitedly for several blocks. The other workers were amazed at the dog’s apparent cure. But soon after, Blymire’s luck began to turn bad. He soon became ill and he started to believe that another practitioner of folk magic had placed a hex on him, possibly out of jealousy. He soon found himself unable to eat, sleep, or work his powwow magic. Blymire used several of his own magical charms to try and remove the hex, but he was unsuccessful. It was difficult to remove a hex if one did not know the identity of the witch who placed it.

John Blymire

Then one night, as he lay in his bed trying to sleep, the answer came to him. Just as the clock struck midnight, an owl outside hooted seven times. It was then that the idea came to Blymire that he had been hexed by the spirit of his great-grandfather Jacob, who had been a powwower and the seventh son of a seventh son. Since he could not fight back against a spirit, he decided that he would move away from his ancestral home and the cemetery where his great-grandfather was buried, hopefully breaking the spell. It seemed to work, and soon Blymire’s luck began to improve – at least for a time.

In addition to his work as a folk healer, Blymire performed a variety of odd jobs. He soon met a young woman named Lily and they married. The couple had two children, but both died in infancy. The youngest only lived for three days. These tragic occurrences led Blymire to once again believe that he had been hexed. Unable to determine the source of the new hex, he turned to other powwowers for help. One of them was a man named Andrew Lenhart, who convinced him that the source of the hex was someone that he knew well.

Blymire became suspicious of everyone around him, even his wife. Lily had reason to fear for her safety because, in 1922, one of Lenhart’s other clients murdered her husband after receiving similar information. The client, Sallie Jane Heagy, shot her husband, Irving, in bed after Lenhart was hired to “drive the witches” from her home. Sallie did not believe the treatment worked and was in terrible physical pain. She finally snapped one day, killed her husband, and later committed suicide in jail.

After consulting lawyers, Lily was able to obtain a judge’s order to have Blymire committed to an insane asylum. The doctors determined that he was obsessed with hexes and magic and needed to go to the asylum for treatment. Soon after, Lily filed for divorce and it was granted. Blymire didn’t remain locked up for long. Forty-eight days after he was committed, he simply walked out the door one day and vanished. No one even bothered to look for him.

Blymire went back to work at the cigar factory in 1928. While he was there, he met two other people who also believed that they were suffering because of someone who had hexed them. One of them, 14-year-old John Curry, was trapped in an abusive household and felt that a malevolent force was causing the trouble at home. Another man who believed he had been hexed was a farmer named Milton Hess. Hess and his wife, Alice, had been successful and prosperous until 1926, when a series of unfortunate events began at their farm. Crops failed, cows stopped producing milk, and they lost a large amount of money. The entire family believed that they had been hexed by someone, but they didn’t know who it could be. The talk of hexes reinforced Blymire’s own belief in spells and he became terrified by the idea that someone was out to get him. He began to consult other powwowers again, attempting to track down the source of the lingering hex.

Blymire turned to a well-known powwower in the region named Nellie Noll, the so-called “River Witch of Marietta.” The elderly woman identified the source of Blymire’s hex as a member of the Rehmeyer family. When Blymire asked which of them had cursed him, she told him to hold out his hand. She placed a dollar bill on his palm and then removed it. When Blymire looked at his hand, an image appeared. It was the face of Nelson Rehmeyer, an old powwower whom Noll referred to as the “Witch of Rehmeyer’s Hollow.” Blymire had known Rehmeyer, a distant relative, since he was a small child. When Blymire had been five years old, he became seriously ill. His father and grandfather, unable to cure him, took the child to Rehmeyer, who healed him.

Unable to understand why Rehmeyer wished him harm, Blymire went to see Noll again. She confirmed that it was Rehmeyer who had hexed him, and added that he was also responsible for the curses on John Curry and Milton and Alice Hess. Blymire told the other two men what he had learned, and also revealed a solution for ending all of the hexes. Noll had stated that the men needed to take Rehmeyer’s copy of The Long Lost Friend and a lock of his hair and bury them six feet underground.

Blymire and Curry decided to go together to Rehmeyer’s Hollow and obtain the needed items. On November 26, they were driven by Hess’ oldest son, Clayton, to the Hollow. They stopped at the home of Rehmeyer’s former wife, Alice, who said that Nelson could be found at his own home, which was about a mile down the road (see photo at top of the story). The men went to Rehmeyer’s door, and Blymire asked to speak with him for a few minutes. He later said that the older man was much larger and “meaner-looking” than Blymire remembered. They went into the parlor, and Blymire asked him questions about The Long Lost Friend and other elements of powwowing – never mentioning, of course, the true reason why he and Curry had come. After talking for a while, the men realized that it was late, and Rehmeyer offered to let them sleep downstairs. They agreed and while Rehmeyer slept, they looked for his copy of the spell book, but were unable to find it. They debated on whether or not to try and obtain a lock of his hair, but finally decided that Rehmeyer was too big for them to hold down while they cut his hair. The pair left in the morning after agreeing that they needed more help.
Nelson Rehmeyer, the man that Blymire believed had “hexed” him.

Blymire told Milton Hess that he needed a member of his family to help them subdue Rehmeyer. Hess and his wife offered their 18-year-old son, Wilbert, as an assistant. The next evening, November 27, the three of them arrived at Rehmeyer’s house. He let them in and they went into the front room. Rehmeyer never got the chance to wonder why they had come back for another visit. When his back was turned, the men tackled him to the floor and attempted to tie his legs with a rope they had brought with them. The exact details of what happened next varied slightly depending on which man told the story, but during the struggle, Rehmeyer was beaten and strangled to death. It’s possible that Blymire intended to kill Rehmeyer once he reached the house that evening, but if he did, he did not reveal his plans to the other two men.

When they realized that Rehmeyer was dead, they took all of the money in the house, hoping to make it look like a robbery. They left behind the book and the lock of the old man’s hair. He was dead – the hex had been lifted, they thought.

But if that was true, Blymire’s luck certainly didn’t improve.

The three men doused the body with kerosene and lit it on fire, hoping the flames would spread throughout the house and burn it down. When they left, Rehmeyer’s body was engulfed in flames, but somehow, the fire mysteriously went out. Some believe that perhaps the hex doctor was not yet dead when he was set on fire and that he might have moved enough to extinguish the flames, but had been burned too badly to survive. Regardless of what happened, evidence of the crime was left behind.

Two days later, a neighbor discovered Rehmeyer’s body. The shocking crime stunned the community, but the terror and excitement that followed was nothing compared to the story that soon emerged. Alice Rehmeyer informed the police of Blymire and Curry’s visit, and they were soon picked up as suspects. As details of the events emerged, newspapers across the country covered the story of the “York Witchcraft Murder” with great interest. Every bizarre detail of Blymire’s hex-obsessed life was described for the public. When the men went to trial, there were daily reports of the proceedings. Hess received 10 years in prison, but Blymire and Curry ended up receiving life sentences for the murder. Both were eventually paroled and lived uneventful lives. Curry, the youngest, served in the military during World War II and became a talented artist.

The “Hex Murder” in York County received wide coverage, and while the local authorities did not launch any official assault on folk magic in the area, the press and authorities in other parts of the state eventually would. The sensationalistic newspaper coverage of the case brought intense scrutiny to folk practices, and they were labeled a form of witchcraft. The press maligned all practitioners of powwowing, even if they only practiced the most benign healing services. Lurid descriptions of magic and strange beliefs filled the newspapers and shocked Americans who were unaware that such things were still taking place in the twentieth century.

Law enforcement officials, doctors, and educators began working together to put an end to what they considered superstitious and dangerous practices. Many of them began attributing supernatural motivations to any strange new cases that they encountered. During the Rehmeyer murder trial, York County Coroner L.V. Zach claimed that the deaths of five children in the previous two years had been caused by powwowers. He said that the children’s parents took them to folk healers when they were sick, instead of real doctors and, as a result, they died. He did admit there had been no formal investigations of these cases, but that they were a matter of common knowledge. The New York Times featured the coroner’s (questionable) claims in an article under a dramatic headline that read, “Death of 5 Babies Laid to Witch Cult.” The newspaper quoted unnamed officials of the York County Medical Society, who said that the coroner’s count of deaths attributed to witchcraft was much too low.

Soon, any death that was even vaguely connected to a powwower – or rumored to have a connection – was labeled a “hex murder.” In March 1929, the body of Verna Delp, 21, was discovered in the woods at Catasuqua, near Allentown. On her body were three pieces of paper with magical charms written on them, supposedly to protect from murder and theft. A coroner’s report identified three poisons in her body, and it appeared that she had taken them voluntarily. The young woman’s adoptive father, August Derhammer, revealed to the police that he had recently learned that Verna was taking treatments from a powwower and that she had been planning to visit him on the day that she died. The powwower was identified as a man named Charles T. Belles, and he was arrested thanks to the fact that the police were sure they had another hex murder on their hands. At first, Belles denied treating Verna, but later admitted that he was treating her for eczema. He claimed to only be a faith healer, not a hex doctor. The authorities didn’t believe him, and even though they could find no evidence to link him to the crime, continued to hold him in jail. As the investigation continued, it was discovered that Verna was pregnant and she had not seen her boyfriend, a truck driver named Masters, for several months. She had not yet told her family of the situation and was possibly looking for a way to end the pregnancy. Even after this new information came to light, the police still believed that Belles was partially responsible for her death. The obsession with hexes and powwow distracted the police from other possibilities in the case, including a botched abortion attempt, suicide or murder by someone other than Belles. By April, they still had no evidence that Belles was involved with the murder, but he was charged anyway. He finally received a hearing in mid-April after lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus. He was released on $10,000 bail, and charges were eventually dropped. The murder of Verna Delp was never solved.

The press jumped on another case of “murder by powwow” in January 1930. Mrs. Harry McDonald, 34, a housewife from Reading, died after receiving severe burns in her home. She had apparently been given some sort of ointment from a hex doctor with instructions to rub it on her skin. At some point in the night, her body went up in flames when she got too close to her stove. She was seriously injured, and when her husband, who worked the night shift, found her in the morning, she was on the verge of death and could not be saved. The woman’s brother told reporters that he believed the lotion she was using was flammable and caught fire, killing his sister. He had no evidence of this, but the press latched onto this theory and kept the story alive with “occult” connections for weeks.

Another “hex panic” murder occurred on January 20, 1932, when the body of a Philadelphia man named Norman Bechtel, 31, was discovered in Germantown under a tree on a temporarily vacant estate. The accountant and Mennonite Church worker had nine stab wounds in and around his heart. Some of the wounds appeared to form the shape of a circle, and were delivered with such force that they not only penetrated his suit and overcoat, but his eyeglass case in his pocket, as well. A crescent-shaped cut was made on each side of his forehead and a vertical slash ran from his hairline to his nose. Two additional cuts ran off the vertical slash in the direction of the crescent cuts. All of Bechtel’s valuables had been taken and his car was later discovered six miles away. From the bloodstains in the automobile, it was clear that Bechtel had known his attacker well enough to let him or her into his car. The case gave all the appearances of a robbery gone bad – but then there were those pesky facial cuts, which detectives surmised might have special occult significance. When it was learned that Bechtel had grown up on a farm near Boyertown, where powwow was common, the police immediately started searching for evidence of another hex murder. Captain Harry Heanly, the chief investigator, had the victim’s apartment searched for any possible connection with folk magic, but all they found were Mennonite books and pamphlets. After following a few more leads, the police still had no answers, so the press began calling the “mystery” a “hex murder.”

Then in April 1937, William Jordan, 36, confessed that he and four others had killed Bechtel, who they had been attempting to blackmail. Most of the details of Jordan’s confession were not publicly released, as Bechtel had been involved in “several love affairs” and had a large life insurance policy. Needless to say, the case had nothing to do with magic.

If these cases had been the only ones tied to powwow, it’s likely that the hex scare would have died out sooner and the public would have lost interest. That was not mean to be, though, for another actual hex murder occurred in 1934, which sealed the fate of folk magic in the state for decades to come.

The last true hex murder in Pennsylvania occurred in Pottsville, in Schuylkill County, on Saturday, March 17, 1934. A shotgun blast ended the life of Mrs. Susan Mummey, 63, as it tore through her living room window while she was standing next to her adopted daughter. Mummey was attending to the injured foot of her boarder, Jacob Rice, who was seated in front of her. The oil lamp that her daughter was holding shattered as the shot tore through the window. Mummey was killed and the other two took cover, not knowing if more shots would follow. They waited all night in fear, thinking that an assassin was lurking outside. Finally, as morning approached, Rice decided to make the two-and-a-half-mile trip to Ringtown to report the crime.

Initially, the police thought the murder was the result of some backwoods feud that turned violent. But soon the case took a bizarre turn when Albert Shinsky, 24, confessed to the killing. He claimed that the killing had been self-defense, and that Mummey had placed a hex on him seven years earlier when he was working in a field across from the Mummey farm. There had been a dispute about the property lines and one day, Mrs. Mummey came over the fence and stared at him for a long time, he said. He claimed that he then felt cold perspiration come over him and his arms went limp. From that point on, he was unable to work – but that was just the beginning of the torture.

Shinsky claimed that whenever he saw a sharp object, it would change into the shape of a black cat with flaming eyes from which he could not look away. The cat also appeared to him sometimes when he was in bed at night. It would creep slowly across the room and jump onto the bed. The appearance of the cat made him so cold, he claimed, that he had to get up and run around the room in order to get warm again. He sought help from several powwowers, but nothing worked. His family thought that he was lying and was just too lazy to work, but Shinsky seemed to genuinely believe that he was hexed. Eventually, when he could take no more of the supernatural harassment, he killed Mummey. He told the police that the minute she died, he felt the curse lift from his shoulders.

Prosecutors wanted to give Shinsky the death penalty for the murder, and the press once again emphasized the danger of the strange beliefs and practice of folk magic. Over objections from the police and the prosecutor’s office, a commission of doctors ruled that Shinsky was insane, and he was sent to Fairview State Hospital. He remained in mental institutions for most of the rest of his life.

The case seemed to confirm in the public eye that the belief in witchcraft was some sort of threat to society. Practitioners of powwow still had a few defenders, though, and they retained plenty of clients, but the tide of public opinion had turned against them.

Thanks to the two murder cases – and the many suspected cases that were inflated by the newspapers – Pennsylvania’s school system declared war on the belief in hexes, especially in the rural areas where it seemed most prevalent. It was hoped that within several years, a new focus of modern medicine and science could erase the superstitions that seemed to plague the countryside. State authorities also launched a campaign against powwowers and hex doctors directly, arresting and prosecuting them for practicing medicine without a license. Combined with the sensational stories in the media, and the assault on folk magic in general, many of the remaining powwowers went underground. Except for the few who retained public storefronts, most of those who continued to practice avoided the public spotlight and downplayed their work to non-believers. They continued to provide services, however, to those who sought them out. As time went on, fewer members of the younger generations showed interest in learning about the old ways of healing and hexes, but the practice refused to die out completely. Many modern healers still exist today, and while they may not be linked to any kind of witchcraft, German folk magic remains alive and well – although believers in the craft today seem far less likely to be driven to murder.

Thursday, August 25, 2016



When it comes to the many haunts of New Orleans, ghost enthusiasts are quick to point to the infamous LaLaurie Mansion as the French Quarter’s most notorious haunted spot. But, as it is with so many lesser-known haunted houses across the country, there are other places in the Crescent City that have tales that are just as sinister – and spirits that are just as restless.

The Gardette-Le Prete Mansion, which has been dubbed the “Sultan’s Palace” over the years, is one of the French Quarter’s most imposing buildings and has long had a leading role among the city’s bloodiest mysteries and legends. It earned its horrific reputation as the scene of violent bloodshed, rape, and murder – tragedies that still linger behind as a haunting. 

A dentist named Dr. Joseph Coulon Gardette originally constructed the mansion at the corner of Orleans and Dauphine Street in the Vieux Carre. In 1825, it was the tallest house in the French Quarter, with basements that were further off the ground and ceilings that were higher than in any other private residence in the city. Four years after its completion, the house was sold to a wealthy Creole man named Jean Baptiste Le Prete. He made the house even more extravagant by adding the cast-iron grillwork to the balconies, which has become the mansion’s most distinguishing feature. With its top floor ballroom and spacious galleries, the house came to be regarded as one of the most luxurious mansions in New Orleans. Not surprisingly, it was the center of Creole culture in the French Quarter of the middle 1800s. 

Unfortunately, the wealth and power of many of the Creole families started to decline in the second half of the century, leading many to scandal and ruin. Le Prete was one of those who lost much of his fortune and he was forced to rent out his wonderful home in 1878.

His tenant was a mysterious Turk who claimed to be a deposed Sultan of some distant land. A short time before, a vessel of war had arrived in the New Orleans harbor at night. Men came and went from the ship on official business and finally, a wealthy Oriental man, dressed in a regal costume, came ashore and was received with great respect by city officials. Le Prete was called into a private conference and was asked if his property might be available for lease. He agreed to the generous terms offered, not realizing the danger he was bringing to the mansion.

According to what he could learn, the “Sultan” was a deposed ruler from a distant Asian country. It seemed that he had fled the land with his brother’s favorite wife. He had hidden away in Europe for a time and then had sailed for New Orleans. He had brought with him his entire entourage, including armed guards and a harem of women and young boys. They were of all ages and descriptions and rumors swirled about the Sultan’s unseemly desires. 

Le Prete had to take his wife and children, along with all of their belongings, and vacate the house completely. They went to live on their plantation while the Sultan went about transforming the house into an eastern pleasure palace. The Turk had transported with him a fortune in gold and established a line of credit at all of the banks. He used his wealth to begin work on the mansion. Soon, the floors were covered with carpets from Persia, soft couches were embroidered with colorful patterns, cushions were piled high in the corners, and carefully carved furniture, chairs, and chests were picked up from the docks. Soon, the move was complete and candles were lighted and braziers were heated to warms the rooms. The smell of heavy incense filled the air and passersby could hear the laughter of the women and their soft voices as they walked in the courtyard each day. Their foreign tongues tantalized the neighborhood men, as did the rustle of their rare silk garments.

And yet no one ever saw these beautiful women. Complete privacy was maintained at all times. The doors and windows were covered and blocked, the gated front portal was never opened and men patrolled the grounds with curved daggers in their belts. The iron gates around the property were chained and locked and the house became a virtual fortress.

Neighbors began to talk, their curiosity aroused by the strange and forbidding changes to the house. A few weeks before, the place had been open and filled with light but now was dark and menacing. They would not have much time to ponder these changes, though, for terrible and bloody events were soon to take place. 

A few months passed and one night, a terrible storm crashed over the city. Under the cover of darkness, an unfamiliar ship with a strange, crescent banner sailed into the harbor. In the morning, it was gone and it had taken the storm with it.

That morning, neighbors passing by the mansion noticed that trickles of blood were running out from under the iron gates. The authorities were summoned but could raise no one, so they forced open the doors and went inside. They found the gate to the courtyard standing wide open on its hinges and muddy footprints leading in and out of the house.  The people from the neighborhood soon found the first indication of the horror that awaited them in the bodies of a few servants had been slashed with swords and left for dead. They cautiously entered the house and found absolute carnage.

At some point in the night, a massacre had taken place. Blood splattered the floors and walls, headless bodies and amputated limbs were scattered about, and all of them had been butchered by sword or ax. No room was without a horrific scene. The bodies and limbs were scattered about, mutilated and burned in such a way that it was impossible to tell which body part belonged to what person. No exact count of the dead was ever determined.

And the horror didn't stop with murder. The beautiful harem girls, the Arab boys, the Sultan’s children and even the guards, were raped and subjected to vile sexual assaults. The scandal was so horrendous that the details of that night have still not been chronicled completely to this day.

The Sultan's mutilated body was found in the garden, where he had been buried alive. In his struggle to free himself from his earthen prison, he managed to partially tear himself from the grave, but it was not enough. He had choked to death on mouthfuls of pungent earth. Over his hasty grave, a marble tablet was placed, bearing an inscription in Arabic. It read: “The justice of heaven is satisfied, and the date tree shall grow on the traitor’s tomb.” It is said that a tall tree did indeed grow on this spot and was known locally as “the tree of death.”

While the tree has long ago perished, the legends of the house remain. The identity of the murderers was never discovered. Some say they were the members of some pirate's crew who had business with the mysterious Sultan and some say the crimes were the work of the Turk's own brother, seeking revenge for the theft of his wife and of the family wealth. 

No one will ever know for sure that night, but what soon became clear was that the Le Prete mansion was now haunted. For years after, the mansion rapidly declined and was almost a slum dwelling because the owners did little to maintain the place. It was rented out as apartments for a time during the great influx of Italian immigrants in the late 1800s. During this period of its worst decay, an Italian woman who lived there made a living washing clothes, which she then hung out to dry on the top gallery. One day, she fell over the ironwork to the pavement below and was instantly killed. She most likely leaned back too far while hanging the clothes on the line but other tenants in the building blamed the spirits for her death. She was pushed, they claimed.

In 1949, the building housed the New Orleans Academy of Art for a brief time but the whispers of ghosts and hauntings never really stopped. The stories said that strange sounds could often be heard there at night, like the soft piping of Oriental flutes and the pad of footsteps on the stairs. It was also believed that the faces of the women in the Sultan’s harem could sometimes be seen peering out of windows on the upper floors. Screams, moans and frantic running sounds were also commonly reported.

By the 1950s, the house was once again used as an apartment building. It was divided into nine units, several of which were two-storied. And still, the stories of ghosts continued. 

In a newspaper interview, one tenant of the house stated that she had been startled numerous times by a man in a garish Oriental costume. The tenant, Virgie “Gypsy” Posten, rented the downstairs front apartment. The place was rundown at the time but it was all that she could afford. “I didn’t know about the legend, or even that the place was supposed to be haunted,” recalled Posten, who later became a successful dancer, choreographer, and dance therapist with countless appearances all over the United States and abroad to her credit. “I was just starting out in my career and the cheap rent appealed to me.”

She soon learned that strange things were occurring in the building. One day, a man in garish Oriental robes suddenly appeared in her apartment. She vividly recalled the incident: “My two-room apartment had only one door, which opened into the main hall only a few yards from the foot of the enormous central staircase that wound its way up to the floors above. I always kept it locked, and even if whoever it was had had a key, I think I would have at least heard it turning in the lock. Yet there was nothing. Only silence. One minute he was there…the next he was gone! He didn’t seem hostile. He’d just stand there and look at me, but it was terribly eerie and nerve-wracking!”

Posten saw the man a second time a short time later. She woke up and he was standing at the end of her bed. “There was no sign of him when I turned on the lights and got up to check, but I abandoned everything there the next day and went to stay temporarily with a girlfriend until I could find another place to live,” she said.

A few days later, she had her last and most terrifying experience. She and her girlfriend stopped by the apartment to get some of her things, which she had left there until she could move out. She remembered what happened next: “We were standing in the dimly lit hallway in the empty house, as I locked the door, when we suddenly heard a blood-curdling scream come out of the inky blackness somewhere at the top of the staircase just a few feet from us! It was petrifying - a long shrill scream that ended in a horrible gurgle! We ran as if the devil himself were after us to the street door. For a moment we even got wedged in the doorway, as both of us tried to get out at the same time! We laugh about it today but it was pretty frightening at that moment! The very next day I got my things out of there.”

In 1966, the house was purchased by Jean Damico, her husband Frank, and a partner, Anthony Vesich, Jr. The house was in bad shape and desperately needed repairs. They decided to restore the place and turn it into luxury apartments. Soon after, neighbors began to tell Jean about the house’s bizarre history and the bloody incidents that had taken place there. Jean Damico recalled, “People would look a little curiously at us whenever they knew we were the owners. Some even told me how they used to cross the street and pass it on the other side.” However, she dismissed the stories as nothing more than supernatural gossip until she experienced something for herself. 

One night, while trying to sleep, Jean sensed a presence in the room with her. She looked up and saw a man standing at the end of the bed. “Thinking my eyes were playing tricks on me, I closed them for a moment and then opened them again to refocus, but the figure was still there,” she said. “When the form suddenly seemed to move toward my side of the bed, I panicked and turned on the light on my night table. Imagine my surprise when there was no one there! My husband laughed at me when I told him, but I know I saw somebody!”

Even today, the "Sultan’s Palace" remains a curious and intriguing mystery of New Orleans and the French Quarter. We may never know all of the secrets this old mansion still hides. What curious tales they might tell if only these crumbling walls could talk.