The Ghost and the Canary: Two Real-Life Impossible Crimes

During 2013 and 2014, I put together a short series of blog-posts with examples locked room mysteries and impossible problems appearing in our seemingly normal, everyday world.

A short series consisting mostly of common, everyday miracles such as a notoriously drunk actor who was locked into his dressing room without a drop of liquor, but emerged an hour later absolutely hammered – leaving everyone baffled as to how he got his hands on enough booze to get properly drunk. Another impossibility deals with the inexplicable leakage of information from a sealed and soundproof betting room, while in another example a magician (unwisely) gives step-by-step instruction on how to create a disgustingly simple locked room trick. A locked room gag best played on unexpected hotel guests.

You can read all five blog-posts about these real-life impossibility by following these links: I, II, III, IV and V. I wanted to do further installments, but my backlog of good examples had dried up and the ones I missed were recently printed as part of John Pugmire's marvelous anthology, The Realm of the Impossible (2017).

So I probably would not have been able to do this post were it not that I recently came across two interesting examples, which allowed me to cobble together another one of these long anticipated filler-posts.

The Knocking Ghost of Boise

I came across this very unusual account of a faked poltergeist on a website dedicated to recording hoaxes throughout time, which covers hoaxes from the middle ages all the way up to the 21st century, but the story of the ghost that rapped messages to puzzled policemen caught my attention – because it read like a spoof of John Dickson Carr done by Anthony Boucher. You'll know why when you learn the solution.

"They're heeere..."
Peggy Zimmerman was a 53-year-old woman who lived with her 12-year-old daughter, Shelley, in Boise, Idaho, but in late September of 1973 she called in the police to investigate the rapping coming from underneath the floorboards. An intelligent knocking that could rap out answers and appeared to be attracted to Shelley, because he could only communicate when she was present in the room. However, the girl was "merely standing quietly in the room" and could not have produced the rapping.

So four policemen arrived at the house, headed by a police lieutenant, who set up traps “to make sure that no one was entering the crawl space” and began to ask questions to the knocking ghost.

How many people were in the room? Six raps! How many policemen? Four raps! And so on. The policemen observed that raps were felt as well as heard and "the sounds vibrated through the soles of their shoes," but the traps were empty and Shelley passed a clever test by the policemen. One of the policemen asked the ghost how many guns they were carrying and the question was answered with five raps, but only two of the officers were openly carrying a firearm and Shelley could not have known they also had three concealed weapons on them – which forced the police lieutenant to admit he had "no logical explanation for the phenomena." However, the mystery was solved the very next day when a news team dropped by the haunted house.

A newsman noticed that the ghost only rapped when Shelley was standing in "a certain, rather peculiar way" and passed this information on to the police. When confronted by the police, Shelley admitted she was the ghost and the answer to the knocking ghost lay in the abnormal condition of her ankles. It allowed her to make a loud knocking sound whenever she flexed her leg muscles, but this prank was reported to the juvenile court. What can I say? Little kids and poltergeists will always be a troublesome pairing.

You can read the full account here.

The Canary Who Could Sing, But Couldn't Fly

The second example I found of a (semi) impossible crime unexpectedly turned up in the ruthless, cut-throat world of American, prohibition-era gangsters and deals with the questionable death of a prominent mobster who became a stool-pigeon – an unhealthy life decision in the underworld.

Abe “Kid Twist” Reles was a well-known figure in the Jewish mafia of the New York underworld and a feared member of a group of contract killers, Murder Inc., who worked for the National Crime Syndicate, but by the early 1940s the authorities were closing a new around Reles. So he turned state evidence and became a witness whose testimonies sent a number of his former business partners to the electric chair. Reportedly, Albert “The High Executioner” Anastasia placed $100,000 bounty on Reles' head and Frank Costello reputedly raised another one-hundred grand to bribe guards to kill Reles in police custody. I think this piece of information could help explain his peculiar death.

The sixth floor plunge of Abe Reles
On the morning of November 12, 1941, Reles plunged to his death from the sixth floor window of Room 623 at the Half Moon Hotel. The evidence suggested Reles had tried to lower himself on to the window below by tying two bed sheets together, but the wire knot came undone and he fell to his death. However, this poses the interesting question why he tried to escape. Reles became a witness to escape the electric chair and the only one who could protect him from retaliation was the government, who had a vested interest in keeping him alive, because he was set to testify against Anastasia in a murder case. And it has been suggested that Reles didn't even wanted to be out of earshot of a policeman. So why voluntarily dangle out of a sixth floor window?

The door of the hotel room was guarded police officers and a possible answer could be that Reles overheard referencing his impending murder.

There could have been a bribe and this knowledge would have left the window as Reles only escape, but rumors claimed he was murdered by being pushed out of the window and the bed sheets were arranged to make it look an accidental fall during an escape attempt – which would make this somewhat of a locked room mystery. Unless the police officers were bribed, you have a murderer who entered a guarded hotel room on the sixth floor without being seen, committed a murder without being heard and threw the bed sheets after him to make it look like an accident, before vanishing into thin air.

There is, however, a possible explanation for the murder scenario and the method is exactly the same as the one used by G.K. Chesterton in "The Miracle of Moon Cresent" from The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926). This is the only way an outsider could have circumvented the police guards at the door and flung Reles out of his hotel room window.

So, in a nutshell, this is the story of a canary who could sing, but not fly, and whose death is full of questions, false solutions and was perhaps a cleverly disguised locked room killing. Surprisingly, this case took place against the genuinely hardboiled background of ruthless, trigger happy gangsters.

I wish I had more to pad out this post, but this was all that was left in the tank. If come across any other real-life locked rooms in the future, I'll do another one, but we might be living in the middle of the 2020s when that happens.

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