As the man who lends his name to this website, as well as countless other resources, the works of Charles Fort are in many senses the foundation on which all subsequent research into the unexplained is built. Fort painstakingly sifted through hundreds of periodicals from around the globe, extracting stories of the bizarre and sometimes downright silly and compiled the resultant clippings into a number of books.
But Fort’s inclusionary style also makes it necessary to approach his works with — not disbelief per se, but caution at the least. In The President’s Vampire, author Robert Schneck has already shown how Fort’s tale of a vampiric sailor named John Brown was actually drawn from a sensationalistic account of a perfectly “normal” murder. This is the first in a series of posts examining various stories reported in his books.
I should specify, however, that I don’t personally blame Fort for any errors he may have made. Newspapers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were often a sort of “whisper down the lane” effect. Say a story appears in a small-town newspaper — by the time it appears in another, larger, newspaper, it has minor changes. The changes compound until they reach metropolitan areas (Fort did his research at the New York Public Library, which large though it was likely didn’t have access at the time to ‘minor’ newspapers), by which point it’s a second or third generation account which may bear little resemblance to the original events.
Philadelphia Public Ledger, Feb. 4, 1892 — murder near Johnstown, Pa. — a man and his wife, named Kring, had been butchered, and their bodies had been burned. Then, in the woods, near Johnstown, the corpse of a stranger was found. The body was well-dressed, but could not be identified. Another body was found — “well-dressed man, who bore no means of identification.”
So reads his account in Wild Talents (1932) of an event from nearly a half-century before. The events in question took place the night of January 26 in Elton, a small town about seven miles southeast of Johnstown and the couple in question were Samuel Kring (age 79), a wealthy farmer, and his wife Rebecca (age 83). I’ve attempted to discover where exactly the Krings’ home was. Consulting an old Cambria County atlas from 1890, I’ve discovered the home on the outskirts of Elton, but as the plan of the town was rather poorly drawn, I can only say that I think it was on the 2000 block of what is now Forest Hills Drive.
Most of the villagers had retired for the night, and it was the men of 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 out 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 and 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 nearby, 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 their bodies the fire had not consumed. The search soon resulted in the uncovering of the blackened bodies of both Mr. and Mrs. Kring. Nothing but the trunks were 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 Frye 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 nearby. As to the origin of the fire, nothing has been definitely learned. There was a stove in the out-kitchen adjoining the rear of the house and there was also one in the sleeping room. It is thought that in someway building caught from one 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.
As of this account, there is no real indication of foul play (though there seems to have been a suspicion of such, later decided to be unfounded), only the typical Victorian ghoulishness, dwelling on the gory physical details of a tragedy. A few days later, the story had reached McKean County and the presses of the Bradford Era and the story takes a turn.
Nothing since the flood in the spring of 1889 has caused so much alarm as a series of mysterious murders that has been committed within a radius of 12 miles. … On Dec. 4, the body of a well-dressed man was found in the woods near Gallitzin with a bullet hole in his head. … The theory of suicide, which at first prevailed, was dispelled by the position in which the body was found. … A week later the body of another man was found about 12 miles away with a hole through his head. About this time it was learned George Myers, a prosperous citizen of Frugality, had disappeared and the body was identified as his. Myers had $800 on his person when he left home and he had been murdered for his money. Less than a week ago the decomposed body of another man was found in the woods near Bethel.
The clothes were of good quality, but nothing could be discovered to establish his identity.
Here we have mention of other bodies which are presumably the ones mentioned by Fort and as the article goes on to link these with the “butchery and cremation” of the Krings, this is likely very similar or identical to the Philadelphia article Fort consulted. There’s nothing to connect any of these murders to each other, however, and even less to connect them to the deaths of the Krings, which seems to have not even been foul play anyway. Both Gallitzin and Frugality are nearly 20 miles away from Elton, on the other side of Cambria County, and it’s unclear where exactly Bethel was as it appears to be one of those towns that’s vanished over time. It may have been in the vicinity of Ebensburg.
Yet another account, in the Indiana Progress, gives some additional detail and possibly alludes to why Frye felt an inquest was unnecessary:
Beside the ghastly bodies was $90 in gold which had been hidden in the bed clothing and was not damaged. The couple were supposed to have fully $2,000 in the house, but as it was thought that it was nearly all in paper it was evidently destroyed.
That’s over $50,000 in today’s currency: so murder and robbery with a fire to cover the tracks, was a reasonable assumption. At some point, someone remembered that most of that money was probably burned up in the fire and the rest was accounted for, which is likely what led Frye to discount the possibility of foul play.
The tragedy also spawned a popular “legend tripping” spot in the vicinity — “Becky’s Grave,” said to be in the Snavely Cemetery on Mount Airy Road in Elton, not even a mile from where I believe the Kring’s house once stood. The grave in question is that of Rebecca Kring, a teenage girl believed to have been hung as a witch. It is said that her ghost appears near her grave, cars refuse to start, etc. There’s two problems with the legend — not only was Rebecca Kring 83, not 18, she’s not even buried in that cemetery.
- “A Tale of Bloodshed,” Bradford Era, February 3, 1892.
- Becky’s Grave.
- “Burned to Death,” Indiana Progress, February 10, 1892.
- “Burned to Death in Bed,” Johnstown Tribune, January 28, 1892.
- Genealogical Information.