Mysteries from History

The old truism -- “truth is stranger than fiction” -- is vividly illustrated in these explorations of oddities and puzzles from the past. Enjoy!

The Fasting Girl: a True Victorian Medical Mystery

By Michelle Stacey

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In June 1865, 18-year-old Mollie Fancher was dragged by a Brooklyn trolley car for nearly a block, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. She then took to her bed for the rest of her long life, becoming an international celebrity because she was able to survive without, apparently, ever eating. Was she a fraud, a saint or a victim of mental illness -- or a bit of all these things?

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The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

By Erik Larson

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"Before the turn of the 20th century, a city emerged seemingly out of the ash of then dangerous Chicago, a dirty, grimy, teeming place ravaged by urban problems. Daniel Burnham, the main innovator of the White City of the 1892 World's Fair, made certain that it became the antithesis of its parent city, born to glow and gleam with all that the new century would soon offer. While the great city of the future was hastily being planned and built, the specially equipped apartment building of one Herman Webster Mudgett was also being constructed. Living in a nearby suburb and walking among the hundreds of thousands of visitors who would eventually attend the fair, Mudgett, a doctor by profession more commonly known as H.H. Holmes, was really an early serial killer who preyed on the young female fair goers pouring into Chicago."
Also available on audio.

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The Circus Fire: A True Story

By Stewart O'Nan

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“Halfway through a midsummer afternoon performance, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus's big top caught fire. The tent had been waterproofed with a mixture of paraffin and gasoline; in seconds it was burning out of control, and more than 8,000 people were trapped inside. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of survivors, O'Nan skillfully re-creates the horrific events and illuminates the psychological oddities of human behavior under stress: the mad scramble for the exits; the hero who tossed dozens of children to safety before being trampled to death. The toll of the fire, and its circumstances, haunt Hartford to the present day--the identity of one young victim, known only as Little Miss 1565, remains an enduring mystery and a source of conflict in the city.”

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The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story

By Janet Gleeson

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"An extraordinary episode in cultural & scientific history comes to life in the fascinating story of a genius, greed, & exquisite beauty revealed by the obsessive pursuit of the secret formula for one of the most precious commodities of eighteenth century European royalty-fine porcelain."

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Shakespeare: Who Was He? The Oxford Challenge to the Bard of Avon

By Richard Whalen

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"Debate has swirled for years around that most significant of literary problems, the authorship of Shakespeare's works. Now Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a recognized poet and playwright, has eclipsed Bacon, Marlowe, and all the other candidates for authorship honors. Lengthy and specialized studies have detailed the historico-literary case for Oxford and against the man from Stratford-on-Avon . . . Shakespeare: Who Was He? is the first book to give the general reader a clear, readable, concise analysis of the arguments for both men. Most intriguing are the many direct parallels between Oxford's life and Shakespeare's works, especially in Hamlet, the most autobiographical of the plays."

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Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World

By Catalina de Erauso

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“Born in 1585, Catalina de Erauso led one of the most wildly fantastic lives of any woman in history. Refusing to be regimented into the quiet habits of a nun's life, she escaped from a Basque convent at age fourteen dressed as a man, and continuing her deception, ventured to Peru and Chile as a soldier in the Spanish army. After mistakenly killing her own brother in a duel, she roamed the Andean highlands, becoming a gambler and a killer, and always just evading the grasp of the law.”

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Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York's Greatest Hoarders, an Urban Historical

By Franz Lidz

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“Homer and Langley Collier moved into their handsome brownstone in white, upper-class Harlem in 1909. By 1947, however, when the fire department was forced to lower Homer's dead body by rope out of the house he hadn't left in nearly a decade, the neighborhood had degentrified, and the Collyers' home had become a sealed fortress of junk. Dedicated to preserving the past, the brothers had held on to virtually everything they had ever touched. …The front-page scandal of the discovery of Homer's body and the worldwide search for his brother, Langley, is interwoven with the heartbreaking story of the author's uncle Arthur, whose own tower of 'stuff' topples when he is blindsided by a mysterious and seductive femme fatale.”

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Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations

By Simon Schama

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"…Schama reconstructs -- and at times reinvents -- two ambiguous deaths: the first, that of General James Wolfe at the battle of Quebec in 1759; the second, in 1849, that of George Parkman, an eccentric Boston brahmin whose murder by an impecunious Harvard professor in 1849 was a grisly reproach to the moral sanctity of his society. Out of these stories -- with all of their bizarre coincidences and contradictions -- Schama creates a dazzling and supremely vital work of historical imagination."

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