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The Ghostly Love Story That Haunted the Father of U.S. Forest Conservation

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Laura Houghteling was terminally ill with tuberculosis when she met Gifford Pinchot, the man who would marry her after she died. The bright and beautiful daughter of a rich Chicago merchant passed away before the age of 30, but Pinchot remained faithful to her for decades, relying on the support of her love from the afterlife as he crusaded for the conservation of America's natural resources.

The only thing Gifford loved as much as Laura was nature itself. Born in 1865, he was the oldest son of wallpaper merchant James Pinchot and Mary Pinchot née Eno, the daughter of Manhattan real estate baron Amos Eno and sister to traffic safety innovator William Phelps Eno. Gifford—6-foot-2 with a robust mustache—was voted the handsomest man in his graduating class at Yale. In 1891, he was hired to manage the forests surrounding the construction of George Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, America's largest privately owned home.

Asheville's hot springs and lush scenery were attractive to wealthy families across America, and the Houghteling family bought Strawberry Hill, a property adjacent to the Biltmore, in 1890. Laura was 26 in 1891, the year they moved in—several years past the age when she would have been expected to wed. Her single status wasn't because of her personality, which was, as her Asheville Daily Citizen obituary would put it, "lovely in every trait of character." Her beauty equaled Gifford's; she had long blonde hair and a soft, kind face with large light eyes. She was unwed because of her health.

As members of the upper-class social circuit, the pair had known each other casually for years. Yet their first meeting in North Carolina, at a luncheon, was very formal; they called each other Miss Houghteling and Mister Pinchot. In his diary years later, Gifford remembered blushing when he first called her Laura. The relationship became intense, conducted over picnics, horseback rides along the French Broad River, and a few stolen passionate embraces.

Both remained hopeful that she would recover and thrive, but they also took solace in religion and their shared interpretation of the afterlife. Their faith posited the physical body as a sort of clothing for the spirit, unnecessary to life itself. The couple read metaphysical works together, including the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who also wed a woman dying of tuberculosis), Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and the Spiritualist novels of early feminist author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward. Both believed that to be dead was to be one with God, and that their lover could share in that communion from Earth.

On New Year’s Day 1894, the reluctant families finally gave their blessing for the couple to be married. Laura had just moved from her beloved Strawberry Hill home to Washington, D.C. for new medical care, but the treatments were in vain. She died on February 7, 1894—before the pair could be married in any kind of official way. Gifford accompanied the Houghtelings to her burial in Chicago, and then went straight back to work.

Thirty-eight days after her death, Gifford recorded in his diary: "My lady is very near." Soon his entries were a chronicle of "my darling" and the "presence and peace" she brought him. He came to think of her last dwelling in D.C. as "our house," and took to standing outside of the building, even after it was sold to someone else. He wore black for two years, but sometime in 1896, he stopped wearing mourning clothes and began to consider himself married.

He usually wrote about Laura in his diaries in the present tense. Some days he wrote in code, using the language of weather to describe his visions of love; a "bright" or "clear" day when he felt her with him, a "cloudy" or "blind" day when he did not. Other days he just said, "To our house with my Laura." He talked to Laura, reading books with her, traveling with her—at least, with her spirit. Gifford was not just unloading his problems to her and dreaming of her, but felt he was taking advice from her on his speeches, ideas, and political plans. Occasionally she even rebuked him, as when he read a book "My Lady did not approve of" and he felt filled with regret. When he sensed her presence grow distant, he discreetly consulted a medium.

The convenience of a spirit who was with him always—rather than a woman with actual needs—was something of an asset as Gifford climbed the ladder in his career. When he faced professional challenges, he sometimes relied on Laura's support. Reflecting on an 1896 speech in Philadelphia, he wrote, "I spoke as My Lady's servant." As the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service (and before that, chief of the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry), he shaped the institution into a force to be reckoned with, training the foresters who would eventually be called "Little GPs" after his initials.

Teddy Roosevelt entered Gifford's life in 1899, when the then-governor of New York invited the forester to his house. There, Gifford bested him in a pre-dinner boxing match. The pair shared a number of qualities: a love of the outdoors, a belief in conservation, and a knowledge of tragedy; Roosevelt had lost his wife and his mother on the same day in 1884, a pain he still carried into the new century. Teddy and Gifford fought a hostile Congress and powerful industrialists to preserve and protect hundreds of millions of acres of land from the corporate entities that had already ravaged Eastern forests. Because of Roosevelt and Pinchot, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and the Petrified Forest are preserved for the enjoyment of citizens today.

Pinchot's single status was a hot topic among D.C. social circles, where he was once called the town's "most eligible bachelor." He had stayed in top physical condition and was a regular churchgoer, but it was all for Laura. Self-restraint was key to both of their upbringings, and while you can't prove a negative, he was probably completely celibate until well after Roosevelt left office. And Laura was still with him, in their way. After testifying before a Senate committee as Chief Forester in 1906, he wrote, "I felt today my Lady's help."

After Roosevelt left office, Laura was less and less clear to him, and the ailing Mary Pinchot sensed an opportunity to see her favorite son married to a living woman. After several persistent proposals, he married Cornelia Bryce on August 15, 1914, just nine days before Mary's death. The marriage was a match on many levels: their political values and ambitions (Cornelia was nationally known for her feminism, and Pinchot became the vice-president of a Men for Suffrage organization); their wealthy families; and their status as older newlyweds, Pinchot being 49 and Cornelia being 33. They had one child, Gifford Bryce Pinchot, and the marriage lasted 32 years, during which Pinchot served two terms as governor of Pennsylvania.

Swedenborg wrote that true spouses spend eternity together, but that temporary human marriages are sometimes necessary when one's time on Earth lasts longer than their true spouse's. After his human marriage, Gifford kept all of Laura's letters and his diaries in a blue Tiffany box ordered a month after her death. But he never wrote of her again. His last reference to her was 14 days before his wedding; it was "not a clear day."

Additional Sources: On Strawberry Hill: The Transcendent Love of Gifford Pinchot and Laura Houghteling; The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America; Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism

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(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
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Animals
The Time Carl Akeley Killed a Leopard With His Bare Hands
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.
(c) Field Museum, CSZ5974c, photographer Carl Akeley, used with permission.

Carl Akeley had plenty of close encounters with animals in his long career as a naturalist and taxidermist. There was the time a bull elephant had charged him on Mount Kenya, nearly crushing him; the time he was unarmed and charged by three rhinos who missed him, he said later, only because the animals had such poor vision; and the time the tumbling body of a silverback gorilla he'd just shot almost knocked him off a cliff. This dangerous tradition began on his very first trip to Africa, where, on an otherwise routine hunting trip, the naturalist became the prey.

It was 1896. Following stints at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment and the Milwaukee Public Museum, Akeley, 32, had just been appointed chief taxidermist for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and he was tasked with gathering new specimens to bolster the 3-year-old museum's fledgling collections. After more than four months of travel and numerous delays, the expedition had reached the plains of Ogaden, a region of Ethiopia, where Akeley hunted for specimens for days without success.

Then, one morning, Akeley managed to shoot a hyena shortly after he left camp. Unfortunately, “one look at his dead carcass was enough to satisfy me that he was not as desirable as I had thought, for his skin was badly diseased,” he later wrote in his autobiography, In Brightest Africa. He shot a warthog, a fine specimen, but what he really wanted was an ostrich—so he left the carcass behind, climbed a termite hill to look for the birds, then took off after a pair he saw in the tall grass.

But the ostriches eluded him at every turn, so he returned to camp and grabbed the necessary tools to cut off the head of his warthog. However, when he and a “pony boy” got to the spot where he’d left the carcass, all that remained was a bloodstain. “A crash in the bushes at one side led me in a hurry in that direction and a little later I saw my pig's head in the mouth of a hyena travelling up the slope of a ridge out of range,” Akeley wrote. “That meant that my warthog specimen was lost, and, having got no ostriches, I felt it was a pretty poor day.”

As the sun began to set, Akeley and the boy turned back to camp. “As we came near to the place where I had shot the diseased hyena in the morning, it occurred to me that perhaps there might be another hyena about the carcass, and feeling a bit ‘sore’ at the tribe for stealing my warthog, I thought I might pay off the score by getting a good specimen of a hyena for the collections,” he wrote. But that carcass was gone, too, with a drag trail in the sand leading into the bush.

Akeley heard a sound, and, irritated, “did a very foolish thing,” firing into the bush without seeing what he was shooting at. He knew, almost immediately, that he'd made a mistake: The answering snarl told him that what he’d fired at was not a hyena at all, but a leopard.

The taxidermist began thinking of all the things he knew about the big cats. A leopard, he wrote,

“... has all the qualities that gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend: To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that, a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive. A wounded leopard will fight to a finish practically every time, no matter how many chances it has to escape. Once aroused, its determination is fixed on fight, and if a leopard ever gets hold, it claws and bites until its victim is in shreds. All this was in my mind, and I began looking about for the best way out of it, for I had no desire to try conclusions with a possibly wounded leopard when it was so late in the day that I could not see the sights of my rifle.”

Akeley beat a hasty retreat. He’d return the next morning, he figured, when he could see better; if he’d wounded the leopard, he could find it again then. But the leopard had other ideas. It pursued him, and Akeley fired again, even though he couldn’t see enough to aim. “I could see where the bullets struck as the sand spurted up beyond the leopard. The first two shots went above her, but the third scored. The leopard stopped and I thought she was killed.”

The leopard had not been killed. Instead, she charged—and Akeley’s magazine was empty. He reloaded the rifle, but as he spun to face the leopard, she leapt on him, knocking it out of his hands. The 80-pound cat landed on him. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her forepaws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards,” Akeley wrote. “However, happily for me, she missed her aim.” The wounded cat had landed to one side; instead of Akeley’s throat in her mouth, she had his upper right arm, which had the fortuitous effect of keeping her hind legs off his stomach.

It was good luck, but the fight of Akeley’s life had just begun.

Using his left hand, he attempted to loosen the leopard’s hold. “I couldn't do it except little by little,” he wrote. “When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch.”

He felt no pain, he wrote, “only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast.” When his arm was nearly free, Akeley fell on the leopard. His right hand was still in her mouth, but his left hand was still on her throat. His knees were on her chest and his elbows in her armpits, “spreading her front legs apart so that the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear my shirt.”

It was a scramble. The leopard tried to twist around and gain the advantage, but couldn’t get purchase on the sand. “For the first time,” Akeley wrote, “I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight.”

He called for the boy, hoping he’d bring a knife, but received no response. So he held on to the animal and “continued to shove the hand down her throat so hard she could not close her mouth and with the other I gripped her throat in a stranglehold.” He bore down with his full weight on her chest, and felt a rib crack. He did it again—another crack. “I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.”

Slowly, her struggle ceased. Akeley had won. He lay there for a long time, keeping the leopard in his death grip. “After what seemed an interminable passage of time I let go and tried to stand, calling to the pony boy that it was finished.” The leopard, he later told Popular Science Monthly, had then shown signs of life; Akeley used the boy’s knife to make sure it was really, truly dead.

Akeley’s arm was shredded, and he was weak—so weak that he couldn’t carry the leopard back to camp. “And then a thought struck me that made me waste no time,” he told Popular Science. “That leopard has been eating the horrible diseased hyena I had killed. Any leopard bite is liable to give one blood poison, but this particular leopard’s mouth must have been exceptionally foul.”

He and the boy must have been quite the sight when they finally made it back to camp. His companions had heard the shots, and figured Akeley had either faced off with a lion or the natives; whatever the scenario, they figured Akeley would prevail or be defeated before they could get to him, so they kept on eating dinner. But when Akeley appeared, with “my clothes ... all ripped, my arm ... chewed into an unpleasant sight, [with] blood and dirt all over me,” he wrote in In Brightest Africa, “my appearance was quite sufficient to arrest attention.”

He demanded all the antiseptics the camp had to offer. After he'd been washed with cold water, “the antiseptic was pumped into every one of the innumerable tooth wounds until my arm was so full of the liquid that an injection in one drove it out of another,” he wrote. “During the process I nearly regretted that the leopard had not won.”

When that was done, Akeley was taken to his tent, and the dead leopard was brought in and laid out next to his cot. Her right hind leg was wounded—which, he surmised, had come from his first shot into the brush, and was what had thrown off her pounce—and she had a flesh wound in the back of her neck where his last shot had hit her, “from the shock of which she had instantly recovered.”

Not long after his close encounter with the leopard, the African expedition was cut short when its leader contracted malaria, and Akeley returned to Chicago. The whole experience, he wrote to a friend later, transported him back to a particular moment at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which he’d visited after creating taxidermy mounts for the event. “As I struggled to wrest my arm from the mouth of the leopard I recalled vividly a bronze at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, depicting the struggle between a man and bear, the man’s arm in the mouth of the bear,” he wrote. “I had stood in front of this bronze one afternoon with a doctor friend and we discussed the probable sensations of a man in this predicament, wondering whether or not the man would be sensible to the pain of the chewing and the rending of his flesh by the bear. I was thinking as the leopard tore at me that now I knew exactly what the sensations were, but that unfortunately I would not live to tell my doctor friend.”

In the moment, though, there had been no pain, “just the joy of a good fight,” Akeley wrote, “and I did live to tell my [doctor] friend all about it.”

Additional source: Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

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Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
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crime
Meghan Markle Is Related to H.H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer, According to New Documentary
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons // Nigel Parry, USA Network

Between staging paparazzi photos and writing open letters to Prince Harry advising him to call off his wedding, Meghan Markle’s family has been keeping the media pretty busy lately. But it turns out that her bloodline's talent for grabbing headlines dates back much further than the announcement that Markle and Prince Harry were getting hitched—and for much more sinister reasons. According to Meet the Markles, a new television documentary produced for England’s Channel Four, the former Suits star has a distant relation to H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

The claim comes from Holmes’s great-great-grandson, American lawyer Jeff Mudgett, who recently discovered that he and Markle are eighth cousins. If that connection is correct, then it would mean that Markle, too, is related to Holmes.

While finding out that you’re related—however distantly—to a man believed to have murdered 27 people isn’t something you’d probably want to share with Queen Elizabeth II when asking her to pass the Yorkshire pudding over Christmas dinner, what makes the story even more interesting is that Mudgett believes that his great-great-grandpa was also Jack the Ripper!

Mudgett came to this conclusion based on Holmes’s personal diaries, which he inherited. In 2017, American Ripper—an eight-part History Channel series—investigated Mudgett’s belief that Holmes and Jack were indeed one in the same.

When asked about his connection to Markle, and their shared connection to Holmes—and, possibly, Jack the Ripper—Mudgett replied:

“We did a study with the FBI and CIA and Scotland Yard regarding handwriting analysis. It turns out [H. H. Holmes] was Jack the Ripper. This means Meghan is related to Jack the Ripper. I don’t think the Queen knows. I am not proud he is my ancestor. Meghan won’t be either.”

Shortly thereafter he clarified his comments via his personal Facebook page:

In the 130 years since Jack the Ripper terrorized London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, hundreds of names have been put forth as possible suspects, but authorities have never been able to definitively conclude who committed the infamous murders. So if Alice's Adventures in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll could have done it, why not the distant relative of the royal family's newest member?

[h/t: ID CrimeFeed]

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