Sunday, December 26, 2010

Whisper down the lane: dismantling a legend

In his seminal work Wild Talents (1932), pioneering anomalist Charles Fort tells the story of how "a man and his wife, named Kring, had been butchered, and their bodies had been burned." Thereafter, he gives account of no less than two unidentifed bodies found nearby, one of them a "well-dressed man," near Johnstown (Cambria County).

That's not quite the way the story happened. I can't really fault Fort for misunderstanding - he was relying on an account from a Philadelphia newspaper, one that was likely a second- or third-hand account. And anyone in any sort of paranormal/unexplained field knows how accounts get changed and altered over time. Moreover, Fort's story was likely based on one written before anybody knew the full story.

As it turns out, as I was searching for more information and references to the case, I came across a report on a Johnstown-area paranormal site - it was then I realized that the story has changed yet more in the modern day, that the well-known Johnstown-area urban legend of Becky's Grave is also based on the same event. Supposedly, the grave of a woman named Becky Kring is supposed to visit the Snavely Cemetery in Elton. Becky was a young girl, killed when only 18 for supposedly being a witch.

However, as it turns out, no Rebecca Kring is buried in Snavely. She is actually buried (with her husband) in Dunmire Cemetery, a burial ground several miles away. And far from a teenaged witch, Rebecca Kring was 83, her husband 79.

To chart the metamorphosis of this story, we'll examine a few contemporary news reports.

The first article, reproduced on the aforementioned paranormal website, appeared in a Johnstown newspaper (the clipping didn't specify which one) and is merely a description of the fire and of rescue attempts.
About half-past 10 o’clock Wednesday night the village of Elton, containing between one hundred and two hundred people, seven miles south east of this city, in Adams Township, Cambria County, was thrown into a state of great excitement by the breaking out of a fire. Most villagers had retired for the night, and it was the men about Ickes’ Hotel who, being still astir, first discovered the flames.

The fire was discovered to be in the rear part of the residence of Samuel Kring. Flames were shooting through the windows. In front some of the men broke open the door and windows, but a tremendous volume of flame and black smoke burst through the openings thus made, but prevented entrance to the building. Several desperate attempts were made by persons to force their way into the house, and water was freely applied from a hole cut through the ice in a dam near by, in the hope of rescuing Mr. and Mrs. Kring, who slept in a room on the first floor, but every such attempt proved futile, the heat and suffocating smoke being more than anyone could endure, and the poor old couple were of necessity, abandoned to their fate.

The flames made rapid headway, and not only quickly consumed the building in which they originated but communicated with one adjoining and destroyed it. The former was a two story plank, occupied and used as a kind of warehouse. Both belonged to Mr. Kring.

As soon as the flames had spent their fury, water was thrown in considerable quantities upon the charred timbers at the corner of the house in which the room was located where the aged couple slept, in the hope of finding whatever of the bodies the fire had not consumed. The search soon resulted in the uncovering of the blackened and roasted remains of both Mr. and Mrs. Kring.

Nothing but the trunks was left. Mrs. Kring’s was found in one corner of the room where the bed had stood, and Mr. Kring’s in another corner where there had been a lounge, indicating that she had been sleeping in the bed and he on the lounge. The remains were not disturbed at the time, some of the people thinking that an inquest should be held, and that the remains should not be interfered with until viewed by a jury.
Word was accordingly sent to Squire Henry Fye, and he arrived yesterday morning. After an investigation he decided that an inquest was not necessary. The remains were thereupon taken from the ruins and placed in a house near by.

As to the origin of the fire, nothing has been definitely learned. There was a stove in an out-kitchen adjoining the rear of the house, and there was also one in the sleeping room. It is thought that in someway the building caught from on of these, probably from the one in the bed chamber, the resulting smoke quickly stupefying the old couple, and rendering them helpless victims of the flames.

Their extreme age too, was against them, Mr. Kring having attained his seventy-ninth year and Mrs. Kring her eighty-third. She was quite feeble, but managed to do her own work unaided, and there was nobody at the house but herself and her venerable partner.
Pay attention to the italicized quotes; I believe they may account for the next permutation of the story. It seems that there may have been some suspicion of foul play, as in a story in the Bradford Era (February 3, 1892). Building on the reports of the condition of the bodies, it remarks on a series of murders in Cambria County (which may or may not have actually been murders). The first body was found on December 4, in the woods near Gallitzin. It was believed, but not proven, to be a suicide. Another body was found near Frugality (Fort's first "well-dressed [corpse that] could not be identified") but it was determined to be that of George Myers, who had been robbed of $800. Another body was discovered only a few days before the Kring tragedy, near Bethel. That one, however, was badly decomposed (but male) and nobody could accurately say when his fate befell him, or even what fate it was. This body was evidently Fort's second "well-dressed man, who bore no means of identification". Both of Fort's other bodies, it can be seen, precede the Kring tragedy. The article goes on to note that the same killer was responsible for the "horrible butchery of old man Kring and his wife and the cremation of their bodies", but I can determine no reason for supposing this. I think it's pretty likely that Fort's clipping from the Philadelphia Public Ledger was based on this article.

The third article appeared a week later, presumably after the inquest mentioned in the first, in the Indiana Progress (February 10, 1892). It returns to the idea of merely a fire; "the fire originated from an over-heated stove in the bedroom." Gold, which would have survived the fire, was still present, but all the Krings' other money was presumed destroyed in the fire.

How exactly the story of this tragedy became associated with a legend of witchcraft, I don't know; my only thought would be possibly someone heard about the fire, and presumed a burning at the stake?

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