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Ethan Allen slept in my house. An elephant is buried in my front yard. My grandfather taught an escape trick to Houdini.

These family stories are true. I know. I've done the in-depth research.

Family history research can reveal some very strange and unusual topics. I've learned to avoid the urge to dismiss a family story or legend at face value. I've had a lot of fun doing the research behind some these weird claims.

Ok, I'm just teasing you with the magic bullets and spontaneous human combustion stuff.

But there is a family story that's relevant to both. Just strike the word spontaneous and the story will make sense.

Yeah, I know you're thinking that I'm going to tell you that George Washington escaped from an elephant while he slept under the dead cherry tree in my front yard - or something.

I'll 'splain below Houdini's Orange Cheezy Poof Handcuffs.

Magic bullets? Human combustion? Really?

This is a family story that's based on documented facts about my wife's 9th g-grandmother, Anna Maria Von Ludwig. You see, Anna Maria was the last person convicted of heresy and sentenced to burn at the stake.

So that's the human combustion part of the story. Miraculously, she survived the ordeal. Her siblings did not survive.

Anna Maria was born in Kleinheubach, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany in about 1594, She married Johann Georg Conrad (George Conrad, The Great). Their children emigrated to Nova Scotia and prospered. My wife's 5th cousin, Dave Conrad, wrote a semi-fiction book about Anna Maria called The Last Heretic. Dave is researching a related German folk legend that is widely believed to be based on events that involved Anna Maria's brothers. The historians of the Kleinheubach region have supposedly unearthed evidence that points to these origins of the folk legend.

The folk legend is believed to be the inspiration of the German opera, Der Freischütz (the marksman or the free-shooter), by Carl Maria von Weber first performed in 1821. The folk legend and the opera explain that the marksman's skill is excellent because he shoots magic bullets. It's thought that the only good marksmen or hunters in the region were Anna Maria's brothers.


Ethan Allen slept here? Yeah, sure....

I ran across this family story on Tuesday. I found an obituary in a archived newspaper from 1898. You can read George Albert Walker's (my 1st cousin 4x removed) obituary here. Click on the image to enlarge . It's about half way down the page to the right of center in the fifth column. Obituaries, especially those of prominent individuals, often provide information that's new to me.

Sure enough, the very last paragraph got my attention:

The L [ell] of the house in which Mr. Walker lived was the first frame house in Dummerston [Vermont] and the first window glass in Dummerston was used therein. Under its rafters Vermont's renowned son, Ethan Allen, often slept, as the house was situated on the old stage road to Bellows Falls [Vermont].
How did I not know about this? Apparently, I didn't notice this in any of the town histories. The house is still in possession of the family. The old stage road is now Vermont Route 5 and the house and farmland is known as Walker Farm which Yankee Magazine chose as on of the top 5 nurseries in New England. Really. It's wicked good, as they say. The present owner is my 5th cousin. Sure enough, the Our Farm / History item documents that Ethan Allen slept there. Now I'll have to visit the Dummerston Town Hall again. The histories document only one visit by Ethan Allen, apparently documented in the town records, but the obituary says he stayed there often.

I know enough about Ethan Allen's activities in the area to believe that he probably boarded there when he had business in the county seat, Westminster, Vermont, just down the road. Ethan Allen married each of his two wives in Westminster and was known to have argued often with the British Colonials, usually called the Yorkers, at the courthouse in Westminster. He was despised by the British. Many of Allen's speeches and written documents are laced with vulgar language and nasty insults and weren't fit for publication. I like Ethan Allen a lot....

The town was known as Westminster, Columbia County, New York before the Westminster Massacre of March 13, 1775. The historical marker pictured at find-a-grave describes the event.

The local history of these small downs along the West side of the Connecticut River is surprisingly rich and complicated. A well-researched history of early Dummerston, VT was published in 1902, History of Captain John Kathan: The First Settler of Dummerston, Vt., by David Mansfield, available online as a free Google book (100 pages).

You'll learn, in great detail, why the American Revolution began on March 13, 1775 in Westminster, Vermont, not April 19, 1775 in Lexington, Mass. among other things. (To be fair, Vermont was not one of the 13 colonies and was claimed by the British as part of New York).  

Oh, yeah. This book provided another clue to resolving the last name of my 3rd ggrandmother who married George Albert Walker's (the obit) Uncle Benjamin Walker in Westminster, VT. The town records have been marked up with alternate spellings for her last name. Records show Susan Cochran, Coffrein, Coffran, Coffin, Cofren, and more depending on how you interpret the faded scribbles. The Kathan book tells of a Captain Cochran, one of Ethan Allen's officers came with a detachment of Green Mountain Boys to the area from Bennington. That's just a weak hint, but I've been stuck at this dead end for years. Any hint is a good thing.

There's an elephant buried in the front yard!

The Westmoreland, NH Historical Society believes that the remains of Horatio the elephant were buried in the front lawn of the house located just to the right and out of the frame of this picture of the Park Hill Meetinghouse. I spent too long tryng to find my picture of that exact house. The Park Hill Meetinghouse is more impressive anyway.

Park Hill Meetinghouse
Park Hill Meetinghouse, Westmoreland, NH
The owners of this house can rightly say that there's an elephant buried in their front yard. Probably. There isn't any physical or archealogical evidence that I know of that proves Horatio is buried there. I asked the Historical Society about evidence. They weren't sure what was in the archives. I found out that Horatio's hide was mounted for display in Boston and it was a popular attraction for many years. Unfortunately, the building that housed Horatio is now a T-stop and a fountain in front of the Boston City Hall building. I haven't done any research to locate Horatio, but I suspect that a Natural History Museum in or near Boston might have records of his disposition. I would hate to think that he wasn't able to be preserved, but it's been a long time since 1820. A long time with no air conditioning or humidity control.  

What would you be tempted to say when a friend casually mentions that their grand-uncle knew Houdini and they traded escape techniques and tricks? In my mind, the words "Yeah, right" would be a first thought.

Out came the scrapbooks. It was all about The Great Reno. He was for real, nearly as famous in New England as Houdini. His entourage included fortune-tellers. So out came the real crystal balls. None of this glass globe nonsense. These were imperfectly shaped, semi-transparent, flawed and scratched, small quartz crystal balls. Unfortunately, the family had sold a lot of his escape apparatus years earlier. A few pieces remain in the treasure boxes of various family members.

Our friend's father passed away a while ago and we attended his funeral. Two people were there who had been "sawed in half" many times during their childhood. They said that the box was too small for an adult "victim":You can visit a cemetery in Southbridge, Massachusetts and find the cemetery marker for Frank Renaud, 1890-1964, carved with the words, "The Great Reno" beneath his name.

His grandchildren and ggrandchildren have created a web site or two and posted additional information online in honor of their well-loved and famous ancestor.

A Google search will reveal many additional sites that pay tribute to The Great Reno.

I would have loved to have met this amazing and gentle giant of a man.

Yes, he really did work with his close friend, Harry Houdini (Erik Weisz).


Floor's open. It's an open thread.

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