Monday, July 11, 2016

Ghost Story #12: The Gesticulating Apparition

The Detroit Free Press, June 17, 1888
I'm not sure where the ethics part of this story comes into play but I'm guessing that it's in the regiment of this apparition or some colloquialism from the 1880s that I'm not aware of.

The gigantic woman, in proportion to the skies themselves, was an apparition that appeared in the latter part of spring 1888 in Detroit near Woodward and Warren avenues. She was said to pace the flat roof of a certain house at the bookends of the day.

Some say she was a nurse begging mercy with her confounding gesticulations and arms held out in supplication. While others thought the amazon a presentiment of the outbreak of a dread disease as she appeared once when a scarlet fever card was placed on the door by health officials.

Whatever she was dissipated just as suddenly as it first appeared.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Detroit's Suicide Girls & "The Mad House" at 148 East Larned Street


The comely waif nervously scraped her foot against the floor, bowed her head in penance and stood mute before the justice on charges of public drunkenness. She had become a frequent caller to the Detroit Police Court and on her latest visit in early July of 1899 Justice Sellers proved to be a lenient adjudicator.

"Viola why don't you be good?" he asked.

“Be good and you will be lonesome” she said, quoting Mark Twain, between other good-humored asides.

The judge suspended her sentence and advised Viola Young to pursue literature and not whiskey. But alcoholism was more the answer than a symptom of her reckless ways.

Less than six weeks later she was back before the judge for "carrying beer to interested people in an alley." Although she had heeded the advice of Sellers to cut out the darker spirits she was given the choice of a $5 fine or 30 days at the House of Corrections. That was the least of her worries.

The Detroit Free Press, August 13, 1899
As the brief snippet from The Free Press attests to there was more bubbling under the surface of Ms. Young than a mere taste for alcohol. She was part of a suicide death club that resided at 148 Larned East [sic] in the heart of Detroit. A street lined with houses of ill-repute, drug joints and unsavory characters.

While I haven't been able to ascertain if Viola Young was a prostitute it seems quite possible. That the newspapers labelled the tenants of 148 Larned East "inmates" suggests as much since most houses of reform weren't known for simultaneously being opium dens. Additionally, how else would a home full of suicidal addicts afford their room and board?

Another point of contention which I haven't been able to resolve at this point is ownership of the residence. Several articles printed between 1899 and 1902 ascribe head-of-household status to Ella Parker despite the fact that she was stated to be only 22-years-old in an 1899 clipping. No matter. The re-telling of this fantastical story won't be deterred by the underpinning of facts.

*     *     *

The onset of the twentieth century brought with it more than just the technological advances of the post Industrial Revolution age. Grueling physical labor, economic booms and busts, over-crowded cities, a loosening of societal mores and the growing acceptance of alcohol and opiates usage by sects of the masses led to a festering nihilism among the displaced members of society.

Suicide pacts became both a literary movement as well as a public plague. Newspapers sensationalized the growing trend and the act of immolation became a grim fad of sorts. The girls of 148 Larned East all-too-willingly ventured into the secret society of the doom-laden.

The Detroit Free Press, August 21, 1899
After reading the article above, what originally began as a hunt for Detroit hauntings turned into an intrigue of life during the infancy of Detroit as a major world class city. A Free Press reporter documented the goings-on.

The two women occupying the homestead at the time were Ella Parker and Viola Young. Kittie Weiss's name surfaced as the third tenant in a court hearing just days after the suicide death of former resident Edna Kelly. An unnamed fourth woman has yet to present herself to me.

The disheveled beasties plagued with hallucinations from opiate usage and the overabundance of drink in their system were known to shriek in the night at the sight of Edna's ghost. Which forced patrolman Daly to run to their aid from his beat only to find no cause for the pronounced hysteria.

Ms. Kelly, before her death, was also a known presence in the police court. Having been arrested for opium use, haranguing an officer's wife and "being naughty" she oft threatened suicide and once even bit her wrist in a futile attempt at the act while in custody.

Described as being jocose, merry and having "plump arms" by a court reporter who witnessed the young woman kissing a five dollar bill farewell, in 1898, after being fined by Judge Whelan. She had pulled the currency from a large wad that she kept in her "pointed slipper." The gesture drew amazed stares from onlookers and gives some credence to my supposition that the girls were probably ladies of the night.

The Detroit Free Press, June 25, 1899
Her episodic jocularity was tempered by dark bouts of depression, substance abuse and violent suicidal actions. The above article mentions one court appearance where her irrationality worsened her plight. After being fined $5 by Justice Sellers she swore vengeance against the court. Outside of the building she harangued the wife of patrol wagon driver Ben Coats and was once again arrested. She was promptly given six months in jail or a $50 fine. She responded, as mentioned previously, by trying to sever an artery in her wrist while being processed at the Woodbridge Street station.

Her final attempt at suicide succeeded but not without some prolonged drama. Having drank an ounce of laudanum on August 9th she seemingly had pulled through with the aid of Dr. Garenfio (or Garenflo) but passed away a week later. She was the sixth from "The Mad House" to take her own life.

The Detroit Free Press, August 10, 1899
The suicide club had commenced nearly a year earlier with the ten girl inmates deciding to kill themselves over a three year period. Edna Collins was the first to die. Her poison of choice was morphine and with a lethal dose administered the girl with "a wealth of brown hair" passed into the void. The next four seemingly perished without fanfare or recognition.

The mistress of the house, Ella Parker, vowed to be next. "A month from now and you'll hear no more of me." she proclaimed but apparently the pact had run its course with an opium raid the previous month along with the unexpected media attention foisted upon the wayward sect.

However, the death of Edna Kelly did nothing to damper their ways in the immediate aftermath.

The Detroit Free Press, August 20, 1899
Having been brought before Justice Sellers for forming "quick acquaintances with men on the street" Kittie Weiss flimflammed the good judge by claiming that she was merely soliciting money for the burial of her former deceased housemate, Edna Kelly. For good measure she pulled out a petition stating as much. Sellers was suckered once more. It later surfaced later that Edna's parents had provided all costs towards her funeral.

I've yet to uncover anything else on Viola Young but one small tidbit has surfaced concerning Ms. Parker's fate:

The Detroit Free Press, December 12, 1902
A fire on December 12, 1902 "practically destroyed" the dwelling at 148 Larned Street East. Was it the fourth attempt at death for Ella or merely an act of happenstance? The fact that patrolman Dan Shanahan had to forcibly enter the house suggests the possibility but gives no definitive answer either way.

*     *     *

The Detroit Free Press, August 26, 1898
As an aside, this blurb concerning the attempted suicide of Ella Blindley at "The Mad House" address in 1898 might just provide one of the five unnamed girls in the article or could have just been an alias used by Ella Parker or one of her brood.


Princess of Wails; The Detroit Free Press, February 5, 1899

untitled; The Detroit Free Press, June 6, 1899

untitled; The Detroit Free Press, June 11, 1899

Mark Twain Saved Her; The Detroit Free Press, July 3, 1899

Would-Be Suicide Finally Died; The Detroit Free Press, August 17, 1899