The Mysterious Case of the Skeleton in the Cylinder

Liverpool Evening Express
Liverpool Evening Express

Around 1941, the Germans dropped a bomb on a street in Liverpool, exposing among the rubble a watertight metal cylinder about 6.5 feet long. For several years it lay on the side of the street, more or less ignored. People used it as a bench, kids played on it, and nobody thought it was anything particularly unusual—until one day somebody took a look inside.

Liverpool had been the most heavily bombed British city outside London during the Blitz. Much of the city was destroyed, and amid the chaos, the explosion on Great Homer Street seemed just like any other. Rubble had been cleared away by American soldiers in bulldozers, who left behind some larger chunks of debris, including the aforementioned cylinder—which went largely ignored until July 13, 1945.

On that day, a group of children managed to break part of the cylinder open and peer inside. What they saw inside likely chilled them to the core: a corpse.

The police were alerted, and the cylinder was opened fully to reveal the skeleton of a man who, many locals presumed, had perished in the bombings a few years earlier. Curiously, however, the man was dressed head-to-toe in clothing much more suited to the Victorian era and lying on some sort of cloth. He also still had a few strands of hair attached to his skull, which was propped up on a makeshift pillow formed of a brick wrapped in burlap.

Rumors, speculation, and confusion surrounded the first few days of the discovery, with local newspaper the Evening Express stating that “at the present stage there did not seem to be any suggestion of murder. It was quite possible that the man was of the ‘queer’ type and had crawled into the cylinder to sleep. He may have been dead 20 years.” (In this context, queer likely meant somebody with a mental illness.) The mystery deepened a few days later, when the coroner, one Mr. G. C. Mort, announced that along with the body they had discovered two diaries (sadly illegible), a postcard, and a rail notice, all dating from 1884 or 1885, as well as a well-worn signet ring, a set of keys, and an undated receipt from a T. C. Williams and Co.

An investigation by the coroner showed that T. C. Williams and Co. had been a local paint manufacturing company that operated from the 1870s until 1884, when the company fell into financial ruin and closed for good. Its owner, Thomas Cregeen Williams, was declared bankrupt in 1884. Creditors were asked repeatedly to come forward and stake their claim to his assets, but by 1885 Williams had disappeared. Local papers announced the mystery solved—but the coroner wasn’t so sure. Williams had a son, born in 1859, and some believed that it was actually his body in the cylinder. This theory was ruled out when the investigation found the younger Williams buried in a cemetery in Leeds. Meanwhile, the elder Williams’s whereabouts remained unconfirmed.

As outlandish as it may seem that a body could lay undiscovered in residential Liverpool for 60 years, as far as the police were concerned, that appeared to have been what happened. On August 31, 1945, the official inquest recorded an open verdict, meaning the death was deemed suspicious but without an obvious cause. According to the Liverpool Evening Express, the coroner said it was "impossible to find the cause of death, which he believed took place in 1885.” Although the body in the cylinder has never been officially confirmed as that of T. C. Williams, this still stands as the prevailing theory.

But what of the cylinder? And how did the body end up in there in the first place? According to an official from the Home Office in 1945, the cylinder seemed to be part of a ventilation system (no traces of paint were found inside, ruling out any chance of a freak paint manufacturing accident). Was T. C. Williams sleeping in the vents of his old factory to hide from the creditors, and had he succumbed to deadly fumes? (The cylinder was found about a mile from the factory, but the bombs and bulldozers might have moved it.) Did he, as one theory put forward by the blog Strange Company suggests, fake his own death using this body as a decoy while making a break for America? Being that Liverpool was a major port city in the 1880s, it’s not logistically impossible, if perhaps a little farfetched. We might never know for sure. Perhaps the answer is still lying at the side of a road in Liverpool somewhere, just waiting to be noticed.

Hundreds of 17th-Century Case Notes of Bizarre Medical Remedies Have Been Published Online

Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As medical texts, the writings of Simon Forman and Richard Napier aren't very useful. The so-called "doctors," regarded as celebrities in 16th- and 17th-century England, prescribed such treatments as nursing puppies and wearing dead pigeons as shoes. But as bizarre pieces of history, the 80,000 case notes the two quacks left behind are fascinating. The BBC reports that 500 of them have now been digitized and published online.

Forman and Napier were active in the English medical scene from the 1590s to the 1630s. They treated countless patients with remedies that straddled the line between medicine and mysticism, and their body of work is considered one of the largest known historical medical collections available for study today. After transcribing the hard-to-read notes and translating them into accessible English, a team of researchers at Cambridge University has succeeded in digitizing a fraction of the records.

By visiting the project's website, you can browse Forman and Napier's "cures" for venereal disease ("a plate of lead," "Venice turpentine," and blood-letting), pox (a mixture of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer dung), and breastfeeding problems (using suckling puppies to get the milk flowing). Conditions that aren't covered in today's medical classes, such as witchcraft, spiritual possession, and "chastity diseases," are also addressed in the notes.

All 500 digitized case notes are now available to view for free. And in case you thought horrible medical diagnoses were left in the 17th century, here some more terrifying remedies from relatively recent history.

[h/t BBC]

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Tried Solving a Real Mystery

An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
An 1892 drawing of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, published in The Strand Magazine
Sidney Paget, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On September 1, 1907, the New York Times wrote:

It looks as if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will eventually come to be considered an even greater detective than he made out Sherlock Holmes to be.

Doyle had found himself embroiled in a case that captured worldwide media attention for the fact that he, and not his famous sleuth, was trying to solve it. In 1906, a man named George Edalji was freed from prison after being sentenced for the crime of animal cruelty. He stood accused of injuring horses and cattle in Great Wyrley, and also of writing letters threatening to do the same to women. Upon his release, he wrote to Doyle asking for the celebrated author’s help in proving his innocence.

Doyle, who typically turned down such requests, was grieving over his wife's death and was eager for a distraction. He suspected Edalji’s Indian heritage was partly to blame for his conviction, as the Staffordshire police were believed to be racially discriminatory and the physical evidence was flimsy. (Another horse had even been attacked while Edalji was in prison.)

Doyle’s theory of the man’s innocence was largely dependent on his eyesight. In a remarkably Holmes-esque observation during their first meeting, Doyle noted Edalji held his newspaper close to his face. Since the animal mutilations had taken place at night and the criminal would have had to navigate a series of obstacles, he figured Edalji’s vision was too poor for the accusations to make sense.

Once Doyle took up his cause, Edalji became a symbol for injustice. Letters poured in, both to Doyle and to the Daily Telegraph, who had published his argument of Edalji’s innocence. The Scottish writer J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan) wrote to say, “I could not doubt that at all events Edalji had been convicted without any evidence worthy of the name.”

Not everyone was convinced. The chief constable, George Anson, did not appreciate Doyle inserting himself into what police considered a closed case. Doyle was not simply posturing as an amateur sleuth: he was a pest, bombarding Anson almost daily with letters questioning their investigation, offering alternative theories, and using his celebrity to keep the case in the newspapers. Since Edalji had already been freed, his intention was to get some kind of financial compensation for the wrongful conviction. Anson responded unkindly, dismissing Doyle’s ideas and delivering sharp retorts.

Doyle was a “contemptible brute,” Anson remarked.

But the author would not be dissuaded, even when an anonymous letter had been delivered to him that was threatening in tone and insisted Edalji was the guilty party. It led him to believe the guilty party was worried enough to try and shut Doyle’s efforts down. By this point, he had isolated his suspicions to Royden Sharp, a former sailor who was said to be aggressive and once showed off a horse lancet capable of inflicting the wounds seen in the injured animals.

Doyle’s actions, the anonymous correspondent wrote, were “to run the risk of losing kidneys and liver.”

Doyle would later learn the letter was not written by a suspect, but instead commissioned by an unlikely tormentor: Constable Anson.

The officer had become so aggrieved with Doyle that he believed forging this letter would either discourage the author or send him on a wild goose chase. In recently discovered records that went up for auction in 2015, Anson even expressed glee that he had fooled “Sherlock Holmes.”

Despite Anson’s attempts to embarrass Doyle, the author had too large a platform for the Home Office to ignore. In 1907, they pardoned Edalji of the mutilation crimes, which allowed him to return to work as a solicitor. But they refused to apologize or offer any restitution.

Doyle was frustrated by their stubborn reaction, but his efforts had one crucial impact on British law: the publicity surrounding Edalji led to the creation of an official Court of Appeals, easing the process for future defendants.

Though Doyle won over the court of public opinion, he failed to solve the case: Sharp was not seriously investigated by police. Whoever had stalked the horses, cows, and sheep during those nights in Great Wyrley has never been identified.

This story was first published in 2016 and republished in 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER