Interesting If True - Episode 71: Gun Ghost: Reloaded
Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that does a Halloween-based, month-long, thing… it’s a theme ya see… or… maybe you don’t! oooOOOoooOooo. Ghosts.
I’m your host this week, Aaron, and with me are:
I’m Shea, and this week I learned there are 27 bones in your hand, but 28 if you’re lonely.
Bruz – Cabernet Grand Cru
- Aaron: 8
- Shea: 7
- Steve: 5
I joined Dustin from Atheist Nomads this week for a headline or two or six. It was a good chat! I felt a little bad actually, we got to chatting and I think I kept him way past his bedtime… it was sure as hell past mine.
Look for that to come out… soon, probably. He said the episode number and I could do the math but you should be listening anyway.
We’ve also got a royal announcement!
No, Shea isn’t preggers, it’s Drag Queen Bingo!
This year’s theme is A Royal Affair, so dawn your fanciest crown and come have a beer with us! Tickets will go on sale on October first and usually sell out quickly! The event will be at the Laramie Hilton Garden Inn. Normally, we’d have a reservation block, but it’s already sold out. Still, if you’re going to be in the Laramie area and want to have a good time get a ticket… or send us an email! As is our tradition we’ve purchased a VIP table which seats 10, but… we don’t have 10 hosts so we’ll have a ticket or two to spare for the first handful of folks who reach out.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled nonsense.
A few weeks back I told patrons the story about that time bored Australians pretended to be ghosts to everyone’s detriment. Especially that kid that got shot in the chest. He was not love’n it.
Continuing our Halloween quest for ghastly ghosts, ghouls, and a third thing, I bring to you the obligatorily-“curious” case of the Hammersmith Ghost!
The case of the Hammersmith Ghost murder is an intreguing tale of the supernatural, murder, and18th century British Paralmentray law.
But since I’m not one of the Andrews, we’ll mostly stick to the fun stuff.
So, the year is 1803. The place, Hammersmith, a district of west London. England. Earth. And the filler, was needed… 1803 began on a Saturday for Greg and a Thursday for Julian. The French sold Louisiana somehow. Ohio becomes a regret… er, state. And… that was kind of it, shortest year wiki page I’ve done so far. Lame 1803, I thought you were better than this.
The people of Hammersmith were haunted by what they described as “a spectre [sic] clothed in a winding sheet,” though sometimes it was described as wearing “a calf skin with horns.” Fearing the apparition the locals found themselves in the throes of a particularly strong bout of mass hysteria.
Conventional wisdom at the time claimed the ghost was that of a man who had recently committed suicide. At the time, to bury a suicide on consecrated ground left the spirit to wander the Earth forever. As he was entombed at a church, he fit the bill and just as naturally, this pissed the ghost off and that explains, apparently, the attacks on the villagers.
Much of this is hearsay and rumor, but a few details persist in each telling of the story I found with sufficient evidence to support… something… having happened. A horse-cab, or whatever, nearly lost control of his eight-horse carriage, endangering its 16 passengers and himself.
First is the case of an old woman and a young woman who had ventured out to help a priest who couldn’t stop throwing up pea soup…
Kidding. The old woman and young woman thing is the story. They were out for a walk, what with their legs not yet being cuddled, when they came across the ghost. The story goes the women fled in terror, running straight home… and into their respective beds, where they would both eventually die of fright.
With two kills to its name, the ghost was now infamous and the only thing locals were talking about. To the point of clearing the streets at night, avoiding wearing ghostly garb, and of course, an uptick in religious nonsense. It’s against this backdrop of fear and superstition that we meet our story’s brewer, Thomas Groom. Thomas was doing what brewer’s do — going for a walk in a graveyard — when he was attacked by the ghost! It had grabbed the back of his neck and surely meant terrible harm. Fortunately, he was able to use his brew-ninja-like reflexes to … not die and report the story.
Now that it had affected a man, it was time to do something about it. A posse was formed. On December 29th, 1803 a night-watchman named William Girdle, glimpsing the ghost, sucked it up and [cough]his name is girdle[cough] chased the ghost. To escape, the ghost threw off its shroud and disappeared into the city’s alleys. He didn’t catch the ghost but he was now sure it was just a man.
With this revelation the hunt moved away from the supernatural and took on more of a “torch and pitchfork” approach. One would-be Ghostbuster was 29-year-old excise office (think customs officer meets mall cop) Francis Smith. Girdle and Francis liked to go on patrols. With shotguns.
Now, we need to meet a man named Thomas Millwood, a bricklayer who was visiting his family. Despite the ghost scare — and it being the ye-oldie terrible times — he stayed out until 11, midnight maybe. Either way, it was late and bricklayers at the time wore all white for some reason and his linen trousers, waistcoat, and apron where all new, clean, and particularly bright white. Basically, he was cosplaying the Gentlemen Ghost.
Or, at least, that’s what Francis thought when he saw Thomas on the street. Later, Thomas’s sister Anne would testify that she heard Francis shout, “damn you, who are you and what are you? Damn you, I’ll shoot you” and then a gunshot.
Thomas was dead and Francis in handcuffs.
With that, we need to take a break and go back to the ghost.
Remember this entire event was inspired by a ghost scaring random people until a few died? Well, that wasn’t a very accurate telling of events. The ghost was not a hysterical-woman killing, brewer grabbing, demon of the night. He was a shoe maker. And not even a dead one.
I mean, he’s dead now of course. No repeat performances though…
John Graham and his apprentices were cobblers in Hammersmith, working out of what I gather to have been John’s house/shop. At the very least John’s kids were always around and his apprentices loved to frighten the youths with scary stories of ghosts and monsters. At some point it became a bit much and instead of talking to his staff about the issue like a fucking adult, John went the passive-aggressive Karen route and decided to make a ghost costum, stock his apprentices on their way home, and at some point jump out of a bush or whatever and give them a good fright. You know, to scare-teach them that scaring people is a shitty thing to do. After hearing about the shooting his ghost-joke had lead to, he immediately turned himself in to the local police who… weren’t entirely sure what to charge him with so they gave him a right-proper talking-to and released him.
But what about the ghost that scared those women to death? Turns out, they lived, and were accompanied by a man. When the women saw Thomas in his bricklayer whites they mistook him for a ghost and screamed. The man then tried to chastise Thomas but “He told them he was no more a ghost than any of them,” reported the Newgate Calendar, an account of violent crime in London. “He asked the gentleman if he wished for a punch in the head.”
Somehow this story became a hysteria factory.
Anyway, back to the murder.
On January 6th of 1804, a few days after the shooting,Thomas’s body is on the slab. The examining surgeon, and also probably a barber, Mr. Flower determined the cause of death to be an advanced case of getting shot in the goddamned face.
“A gunshot wound on the left side of the lower jaw with small shot, about size №4, one of which had penetrated the vertebrae [sic] of the neck, and injured the spinal marrow.”
So, case closed?
No, case opened!
The one thing the yee-oldie times managed to get right was arresting and prosecuting trigger-happy, amature law enforcement.
Francis admitted to the shooting-murder of Thomas, but plead not guilty to the charges.
During the trial Anne, the sister, testified she heard Francis yell at Thomas and then immediately fire, without giving Thomas a chance to reply. Anne’s mother, Thomas’s mother-in-law said that he had been mistaken for a ghost on a number of occasions already and begged him not to wear his whites because it made him look ghostly. Francis, testified that despite aiming and yelling at the apparition, the ghost continued to advance on him. This was, of course, just Thomas continuing on his way unaware that some ninny thought he was a specter. The shooting was, according to Francis, self defense in the face of an advancing apparition. Some men who arrived after the shooting, John Locke (not that one, this guy’s a wine-merchant), William Girdle, and George Stowe, all agreed that Francis was totes mcgoats telling the truth.
The jury convicted Francis of manslaughter. The Bench, Lord Chief Baron, rejected the verdict, insisting that the jury either find him guilty of murder or innocent. Apparently, the prosecution was super on board for this. The jury deliberated again and found him guilty.
Francis was sentenced to hang until dead and then be dissected. I have no idea why the second thing is there, maybe that’s just how you got practice bodies back in the day.
Justice Lord Chief Baron knew the popularity of the case would be a factor and referred Francis to the crown, who stayed his execution, instead sentencing him to one year of hard labor churning milk legs or whatever they did back in the day to separate the miserable, soul-crushing, crippling labor of living in the yee-oldies from, you know, punishment work. In July of that year he was fully pardoned and released. So… actually no, they were shit at holding trigger-happy, self-appointed and self-righteous, assholes accountable.
Apparently, the case is well-known for highlighting a judicial problem of intent. Basically, if a person acts in good faith to protect themselves or others but has misunderstood the situation, is that the same as straight up murder-death-kill? This remained a thought experiment for another 180 years until Regina v. Williams which, after an appeal, led to new law defining allowances for circumstance and gradations of charges.
So, be nice to your shoe guy’s kids I guess is the take away here.
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I recently saw a post online warning parents to check their children’s candy for weed edibles and drug infused candy and it got me thinking, who in their right mind would spend that kind of money just to give it all away to children who have yet to experience the crushing depression of the world. It got my gears turning and I remembered when we were younger my parents would take us to the local police department to get our candy irradiated and check for razor blades and dirty needles, we never found any… Did anyone ever find any? Let’s find out!
The Halloween candy scare began in 1970. An op-ed on Oct. 28, 1970, in The New York Times suggested the possibility of strangers using Halloween’s “trick-or-treat” tradition to poison children.
The article starts:
Those Halloween goodies that children collect this weekend on their rounds of “trick‐or‐treating” may bring them more horror than happiness.
Take, for example, that plump red apple that Junior gets from a kindly old woman down the block. It may have a razor blade hidden inside. The chocolate “candy” bar may be a laxative, the bubble gum may be sprinkled with lye, the popcorn balls may be coated with camphor, the candy may turn out to be packets containing sleeping pills.
All evidence in the article is anecdotal and I can’t find any real evidence for the few stories she tells. But it is obvious that many readers accepted her questions as definitive fact.
To make matters worse, two days later, a five-year-old child died on Halloween in Detroit after consuming heroin.Tests on his Halloween candy showed that some had been sprinkled with the drug, but the police actually learned the tragic truth behind the boy’s death. He had stumbled across his uncle’s heroin stash and mistakenly eaten it. His family then sprinkled the drug on the boy’s Halloween candy to throw off investigators.
Then in 1974, an eight-year-old Houston boy named Timothy O’Bryan died after eating cyanide-laced Pixy Stix while trick-or-treating. Although the poisoning initially looked like it might have been the work of a deranged homeowner, the investigation into O’Bryan’s murder soon centered on his father, Ronald Clark O’Bryan.
A bit of digging revealed that Ronald O’Bryan had recently taken out hefty life insurance policies on both of his children, and police quickly built a case, albeit a circumstantial one, that O’Bryan had given both Timothy and his daughter, Elizabeth, the poison candy to try to collect on the policies. To help cover his tracks, O’Bryan also gave two other children cyanide Pixy Stix. Luckily, his daughter and the other two children had passed up the poisoned powders in favor of other treats.
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O’Bryan was eventually convicted and executed for murdering his son. While his crime was certainly a horrific one, it was hardly the sort of random poisoning that parents fear.
Around this time is also when the Candyman serial killer was active, between 70 and 73 Dean Corll killed at least 28 teenage boys and young men. The candyman did not give out killer sweets but rather had previously owned and operated a candy factory and was known to give out free candy to children. The candyman had nothing to do with Halloween but his name instilled fear in the country at the time. I may do more on him later as he was a very prolific serial killer.
The first report of Halloween treats being tampered with in North America was in 1959.
That Halloween, a California dentist named William Shyne distributed 450 laxative-laced candies to children — 30 of whom fell ill. . No one seems to know why he did it but 30 kids got pretty sick although one suffered irreparable harm. The laxatives were quickly traced to his house and he was charged with several crimes, including “outrage of public decency,” and “unlawful distribution of drugs.”
Another high profile case made headlines in 1964, when a 47-year-old mother from Greenlawn, N.Y., named Helen Pfeil handed out bags of treats containing arsenic-laced ant traps, metal mesh scrubbing pads and dog biscuits. Pfeil told police she “didn’t mean it maliciously” but was “annoyed by the Halloween custom,” the Milwaukee Journal reported. She was lucky her only trick or treaters were older and knew better than to ingest an ant trap but had they been much younger, who is to tell. She was later committed to a state hospital for mental observation, because of being crazy.
By the 1980s, some communities banned “trick-or-treating” while hospitals in some metropolitan areas offered to X-ray Halloween candy. Parent-teacher associations encouraged fall festivals to replace Halloween, and on Long Island a community group gave prizes to children who stayed home altogether for Halloween 1982.
But what about the old razor-blade-in-the-apple rumor? According to Professor Joel Best, there have been approximately 80 reports of sharp objects inserted into Halloween treats since 1959. The great majority of those reports turned out to be hoaxes; the sharp objects were usually placed in the food by a relative or friend as a misguided prank (such as the kid who put ant poison on a half-eaten candy bar to get a rise out of his parents.) Of the few verified instances of stranger-on-trick-or-treater candy sabotage, such as the year 2000 when James Joseph Smith was arrested after sticking needles in the Snickers bars he handed out, the only injury was a slight prick to one teenager’s mouth.
In 1982 the governor of New Jersey signed a bill requiring a jail term for those tampering with candy.
However, a comprehensive 1985 study of 30 years of alleged poisoning did not find even a single confirmed incident of a child’s death, or even serious injury.
Sociologist Joel Best at the University of Delaware, who led the study, called it an “urban legend.” Most reports of poisoned Halloween candy that appeared in print were editorials written by authoritative voices in politics and media rather than actual events. However, police all over the country urged parents to accompany their children while trick-or-treating.
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The U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on poisoned candy horror stories. In the 1980s, a crime ring called the “Mystery Man with 21 Faces” blackmailed Japanese candy companies with threats that it would lace their candy with cyanide if they didn’t offer large ransoms. At first, it seemed like just a threat, and stores pulled large amounts of candy from store shelves only to find that it was not poisoned.
The blackmailers struck again a few months later. This time, their threats were in earnest: Packs of cookies and candies laced with cyanide were discovered on store shelves in central Japan. Fortunately, nobody died from the poison—though the chief of the Shiga Prefecture police department eventually killed himself because of his failure to stop the crime ring.
Who committed Japan’s candy crimes? We may never know. The perpetrators still haven’t been found—even after 125,000 investigations by Japanese police.
In 2001, police feared a Vancouver girl’s Halloween candy had been deliberately poisoned after she fell ill and died of heart failure hours after eating it. They asked parents to confiscate their children’s Halloween candy.
In the days that followed, it was determined the toddler had died from an unknown medical condition after an autopsy revealed no poison in her system and the candy confiscation order was lifted.
On Halloween in 2016, RCMP urged parents to throw out candy described as an “orange sugared disc with a black centre” after a child in Clive, Alta., became ill. That candy was subsequently tested and found to contain no poison.
We talked about pot in the intro, so I would be remiss if I didn’t find something to do with the weeds. The only instance I could find was from 2000 when parents began finding an odd trick mixed into their children’s treats: Snickers wrappers stuffed with marijuana. Police jumped on the case and quickly traced the wacky chocolates back to a homeowner who seemed truly confused about the whole hullabaloo.
Eventually, the police and the homeowner pieced together what had happened. The man worked in the dead letter office at a local postal facility, and when he found a bag of Snickers in a lost package, he brought them home to give out as treats. He hadn’t realized, though, that the candy bars were actually someone’s attempt at smuggling pot through the mail. So it still wasn’t malicious.
It’s easy to see how these urban legends have taken hold because they’re so terrifying. After all, parents spend 364 days of every year telling their kids not to take candy from strangers precisely because it might be poisoned, then give the thumbs-up to taking snacks from every house in the neighborhood on Halloween. It’s only natural that parents would get a little nervous. Plus, after the terrifyingly random Tylenol murders of 1982 where seven Chicagoland people died after taking randomly poisoned pain medication, many people have been more than a little nervous about crazed poisoners.
Of course, the scares get a real boost every few years when someone, often a parent, dies while eating Halloween candy or immediately afterwards. Statistically, you’d expect just as many people to randomly drop dead on Halloween as any other day of the year, but any time a parent has a fatal heart attack after eating a miniature Butterfinger, the poison candy scourge gets the blame until the autopsy results come back. Everything from heart failure to fatal bacterial infections have been initially blamed on poisoned candy.
Now if candy isn’t the deadly culprit, what is? Well shockingly children are twice as likely to die on Halloween than any other day of the year and it has nothing to do with sugar other than looking for that next fix without looking both directions, car accidents. These fatalities are not just among little kids, either. Most of the pedestrian deaths occurred among those between ages 12 and 15, followed by ages 5 to 8.
So who is responsible for most of those pedestrian deaths? You guessed it — drivers who drank or partied too much. And you don’t have to “feel” drunk or stoned to be impaired. As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says: “Buzzed driving is drunk driving.”
NHTSA statistics show that during a four-year period, 14 percent of all pedestrian deaths on Halloween involved drunken drivers. Overall, the agency says Halloween drunk-driving fatalities are on the rise, with 44 percent of all people killed in car crashes on Halloween night involving a drunk driver.
Sadly, young adult drivers aged 15 to 25 were responsible for the majority of pedestrian deaths of children, according to the State Farm analysis. Safety experts suggest keeping young, inexperienced drivers off the road on Halloween, and of course, be alert for signs of alcohol abuse.
One in 13 children under the age of 18 in the United States has food allergies. Chances are high one of those kids will visit your house for a treat.
Milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree nuts, fish and shellfish are responsible for 90 percent of allergic reactions, according to the Food Allergy Research and Education group. Some of those reactions can be deadly.
Many candies are off limits for children, either because they contain one of the top allergens or because of the danger of cross contamination.
To meet the needs of all your trick-or-treaters, you can join the Teal Pumpkin project, which suggests having non-food treats on hand, such as glow sticks, bubbles, stickers or markers. Then hang a teal pumpkin outside your home so kids with allergies will know you are allergy-safe.
The legend of poisoned Halloween candy has been circulating for decades, but in all that time, there has never been a single documented case of a deranged individual randomly poisoning children’s Halloween candy. And, while there have been a few instances of candy and fruit laced with sharp objects, 75% of them have resulted in no injuries and no one has been severely harmed.
Of course, it’s still a good idea to inspect and remove unwrapped items from your child’s Halloween stash – for sanitary reasons much more than safety.
On the same thread, candy did recently kill a 54-year-old construction worker. Last year an unnamed man was at a fast-food restaurant when he abruptly went into cardiac arrest. He “gasped suddenly, with full-body shaking and loss of consciousness,” the doctors report. Paramedics arrived within minutes and revived him with four shocks and CPR. But when he was admitted to the hospital about 30 minutes later, doctors found he had multi-organ failure, “profound metabolic derangements,” dangerously low levels of potassium in his blood, and cardiac arrest associated with ventricular fibrillation, which is when the lower chambers of the heart twitch erratically without pumping blood. All of these conditions are consistent with licorice poisoning.
Yep, licorice poisoning, you heard correctly. Apparently black licorice naturally contains a toxin called glycyrrhizin, aka glycyrrhizic acid. In high enough and sustained doses it is known to increase blood pressure and a whole other battery of terrible sounding things I can’t pronounce or understand.
A thorough medical investigation noted he seemed to have no previous history of heart problems, and doctors pinned his condition to the candy. Discussions with his family revealed he had been eating one to two “large” bags of black licorice every day for about three weeks before his heart stopped. By the time he arrived at the hospital, too much damage had already been done. He died about 32 hours later, with his family at his bedside.
A Hershey Company spokesperson said the company’s Twizzlers licorice is safe to eat and abides by FDA regulations, but added that all foods “should be enjoyed in moderation.”
- OG op-ed: https://www.nytimes.com/1970/10/28/archives/those-treats-may-be-tricks.html
- Helen Pfeil:
I’m Aaron, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.
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