4 Girls and a Ghost // Public Domain
4 Girls and a Ghost // Public Domain

Tom Skelton: The Serial Killer Court Jester

4 Girls and a Ghost // Public Domain
4 Girls and a Ghost // Public Domain

Allegedly built on the site of an old Roman encampment, Muncaster Castle near the village of Ravenglass, Cumbria, on the far northwest coast of England, has been the ancestral seat of the local Pennington family for around 800 years. Like many of England’s castles and stately homes, Muncaster is supposedly haunted by more than its fair share of ghosts—among them, that of an infamous and murderous court jester named Thomas Skelton.

Although accounts of Skelton’s life are sketchy at best (because he was technically a servant, no detailed record of him was ever kept in the castle’s documents), it’s believed that he was hired by Sir Alan Pennington, possibly as a personal steward and teacher to the real Lord of Muncaster Castle, William Pennington, who was 14 when his father died in the mid-16th century. Precisely how the Penningtons came to know Skelton is unclear, but nevertheless he soon made a name for himself not only as a brilliant entertainer but—if local legend is to be believed—as a lethally dangerous practical joker.

According to one story, Skelton had a habit of sitting beneath a chestnut tree (which still stands today) on the castle grounds, where he would chat with and offer directions to travelers and passers-by on the road that ran by the castle. Anyone he took a dislike to, however, would not be helped on their way but instead be intentionally directed toward a perilous and all but undetectable patch of quicksand by the nearby cliffs, from which there was little chance of escape. How many people Skelton supposedly sent to their deaths this way is unknown—but whether true or not, even this grim story isn’t the worst thing attributed to him.

In 1825, a local journalist and editor named John Briggs published a series of essays and letters in which he recounted one particular story dating from Skelton’s time at Muncaster: Sir Alan’s young daughter Helwise dressed as a shepherdess and went to the village where she met and danced with a young carpenter named Richard, who eventually became her secret lover. But Wild Will of Whitbeck, who Helwise had shunned at the dance, was jealous and followed them until he learned her true identity.

He told the story to a knight, Sir Ferdinand, who had wanted to marry Helwise. He went into a fit of rage and contacted Skelton, who blamed Richard for stealing some money—and with Ferdinand’s backing went out to right several perceived wrongs.

Some versions of the story say that while entertaining Richard with jokes and magic tricks—and apparently agreeing to help him elope with Helwise—Skelton plied the young man with cider and, once he was suitably drunk, helped him back to his workshop. There, Skelton bludgeoned him to death with his own tools and, according to Briggs’s account, cut off his head with an axe and hid it beneath a pile of wood shavings. Skelton then returned to the castle and coolly told his fellow servants what he had done, joking that the carpenter “will not find [his head] so easily when he awakes as he did my shillings [that were stolen].” Quite what the other servants thought of this is, unfortunately, unrecorded. But Briggs does tell us Ferdinand's attempts to woo Helwise failed, and she went to go live in a nunnery while he went on to die in battle.

Briggs’s account of the carpenter’s murder is one of only a handful of details from Skelton’s life that we have on record, but given the lack of real evidence dating from Skelton’s own lifetime it’s impossible to say whether it’s a genuine account or not. Nevertheless, Skelton’s reputation continues to live on at Muncaster Castle: An eerie portrait of him in his full jester’s costume—and holding a copy of his own last will and testament, in which he apparently predicts his own death while reportedly all but admitting to directing people to their doom—is supposed to be the center of all kinds of ghostly phenomena at the castle. Perhaps because of his monstrous reputation, he became the last court jester of Muncaster for hundreds of years—that is, until the present-day Penningtons began hosting a competition each year to find a new annual fool. Hopefully, these new jesters only care about fun and games.

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”


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