Part 15: Curses and Conclusions

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The Verdict

Victor Gorenhoff had bitten off his own tongue and swallowed it.

CourtroomAfter this grotesque display of defiance, chaos reigned in the courtroom of the Reading Assize: men and women fainted; some sat immobilised by the shock of what they had witnessed; others ran for the doors.

Meanwhile, Gorenhoff was dragged from the dock, blood pouring from his mouth, his dark eyes sparkling with malice as he screamed unintelligible words.

The jury retired to consider its verdict; order was restored in the courtroom and the floor mopped. Given the unprecedented turn of events, Judge Willoughby MacMillan had the public gallery cleared and closed.

CellThe jury returned in less than an hour and delivered its unanimous verdict: Gorenhoff was not guilty by virtue of insanity. Judge Macmillan put aside his black cap and delivered sentence: the defendant was to be sent back to the Broadmoor Criminal Insane Asylum, where he was to be kept for the rest of his life.

News of the verdict quickly spread to the crowd outside where they turned to the rioting described in Part 1 of this history. Meanwhile, Gorenhoff was kept chained in a cell beneath the courthouse for more than 48 hours, until the rioting had been quelled and it was deemed safe to transport him via prison carriage to Broadmoor.

The Prisoner at Broadmoor

Gorenhoff had managed to bite off nearly four inches of his own tongue. This, combined with his cleft palate, meant verbal communication was now impossible.

Dr Stephen Conrad considered attempting communication with his patient via pencil and paper, but given Gorenhoff’s strength and propensity for sudden and terrible violence, he was wary of giving the man anything that could be used as a weapon. In the end, he decided to allow the man to write with wax crayons.

Victor Gorenhoff

Gorenhoff, however, showed no interest in communication with Conrad, although he was often heard to mumble to himself in his cell, and spent each night below the barred window looking up at the moonlight.

Finally, after some weeks had passed, there was a change: he took up the crayon proffered by Dr Conrad, and began to write.

If thou dost so earnestly require discourse with me, I will grant it this once. Know thou that the service I swore to my master has been performed to his satisfaction and my reward received: no more will I be forced into humiliating converse with a mangled mouth so unsuited for the purpose, an eternal shame that I have borne since coming into this world.

As for thee and thy counterparts, your meddling hath not gone unnoticed by the lidless eyes of my master.

Sleep well whilst thou may.     

Despite the fact the message was written in crayon, it was clear the script was totally unlike Gorenhoff’s usual handwriting. In fact, it seemed to mirror exactly that which had been discovered on the vellum parchment Gorenhoff had coughed forth before the trial, a document that had supposedly been written by Gorenhoff’s master, the Leper King, Kernan Haustvald.

Conrad solicited the opinions of various experts in graphology: they stated that changes in handwriting were common among patients suffering from diseases of the brain; but none could cite a case where handwriting had changed to mirror that of another so exactly.

The Curse of Gorenhoff

The text of Gorenhoff’s message was soon leaked to newspapers, where articles and reports appeared conjecturing as to the exact meaning of it and dwelling upon the veiled threat at the end.

And then began the deaths.

The prosecution barrister in the case, Edgar Vanderlin, was the first.

He had been much affected by the trial and had withdrawn, weak and pale, to his home, a rambling mansion house near to the village of Goring, which lies outside of Reading.

Ghost_stories_of_an_antiquaryServants noticed that Vanderlin’s usual demeanour was much changed after the trial. He was struck by insomnia and developed a strange obsession with an oil painting – which depicted a moonlit view of the southern wing of the house and the lawns outside it – that hung in a little used room on the ground storey.

First, Vanderlin claimed to discern a shadowy figure lurking in the bushes in the foreground of the painting that had not been there before. A few days later, Vanderlin said the figure had advanced, and was now seen to be creeping across the lawn towards the house, “like a gangrel spider bent on malice”. Finally, the shadowy figure disappeared, but a lighted window appeared on the upper floor of the house in the painting, a window which lay outside the master bedroom and which Vanderlin asserted had previously been darkened in the painting. (This sequence of events is quite possibly the inspiration for the short story, The Mezzotint, by M.R. James, which was published as part of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904.)

Next morning, Vanderlin was found dead in his bedroom, the victim of an apoplectic seizure. When the servants informed police of their master’s strange obsession prior to his death, they asked to see the painting. To the surprise of all, the canvas of the painting was found ripped to pieces, as if by the slashing blow of a clawed hand.

Newspapers jumped on the story, and for the first time there was talk of a “curse” having been laid upon all those who had had contact with Gorenhoff. The public lapped it up.

And then Professor Albert Longden – the tireless historical researcher – died in circumstances that were even more mysterious.

Longden’s Fall

Professor Albert Longden

Professor Longden made a habit of walking on Woking Common each evening at dusk, taking with him his Golden Retriever, Tacitus. When he failed to return one evening from his daily constitutional, his housekeeper raised the alarm.

A number of neighbours took to the wooded common in search of the elderly academic, but hindered by the dark of a moonless, misty night, they did not find him until dawn.

It was grim discovery, for the professor’s limbs had all been broken and lay at bent and awkward angles. His dog, Tacitus, was found lurking in nearby bushes – but the previously quiet and obedient animal was now transformed into a mad, slavering creature which attacked the search party, its jaws foaming as blood dripped from its eyes. The search party ran, fearing the animal was rabid. A policeman later shot the dog, thereby putting it out of its misery.

The cause of Longden’s death remains a mystery to this day. The coroner’s report at the time states:

The broken bones were not caused by blows to the limbs, for there is no sign of bruising. I would say that death resulted from a fall from a great height – the police report states the ground was actually cratered around the corpse – but I am at a loss as to how this could have been caused, as the subject’s body was discovered far from any trees (which, anyway, were too small in height to have caused such extensive breakages).

The Great Pox

The final victim of the “Gorenhoff Curse” (as the newspapers were now calling it) was Dr Stephen Conrad.

4a2f53979574050f588fad500440ed58--medical-oddities-human-odditiesConrad’s death was more prosaic in comparison to those that had gone before. In April of 1903, a year after the Gorenhoff trial, Conrad was struck by a violent flu, which left him feverish, weak and nauseous. While bedridden, agonising blisters began to form in his mouth and throat. Then flat red sores began to break out across his body, sores that soon became raised bumps, filled with weeping pus that caused them to crust over.

As a medical man, Conrad soon realised what the awful symptoms presaged: he had contracted smallpox.

The newspapers were quick to seize the story, although they incorrectly reported Conrad as suffering from “great pox” (as syphilis was commonly known at that time) meaning that Conrad was forced to endure a double dose of ill-fate: as the disease ravaged his body, he was forced to watch his reputation crumble as whispers circulated in polite society as to how he had fallen into such shameful degradation.

Scan of Police Society PhotoDuring the long agony of his death – which occurred some months later – a discovery was made that did not reach the ears of reporters. As Conrad’s bedding was being changed, a Devil’s Twist effigy – crudely made from dead oak twigs and twine – was discovered underneath the mattress of his bed. How it had come to be there was a mystery, as there was no sign of any doors or windows having been forced, and his cook, housemaid, and nurse claimed never to have left the house empty.

Gorenhoff’s End?

With the death of Dr Conrad, Gorenhoff’s care fell to a new man, a young Austrian doctor named Amon Toth.

Dr Toth was a firm opponent of the therapeutic nihilism which existed at the time with regards to the treatment of the mentally ill. Instead, he was a proponent of radical and experimental cures. In Victor Gorenhoff, he had the perfect subject: a man who was clearly delusional but who also possessed an unusually robust constitution that would be little affected by the invasive and dangerous treatments Roth proposed.

Water_Therapy-2He first tried shock treatment via immersion in ice-water. This went against the advice of the chief-warden, who reputedly stated, “If you want to dunk that monster in freezing water, you can undo the straps afterwards yourself”.

His words were prophetic: after only a single immersion, Gorenhoff managed to rip loose one of the leather restraints that held him to the dunking chair and with only one hand free, still managed to hospitalise two wardens before he was beaten unconscious with wooden clubs.

Next, Toth tried malariotherapy: Gorenhoff was intentionally infected with malaria to induce a high and hallucinatory fever which Toth thought would help to scour Gorenhoff’s brain of the tissues that caused his derangement.

The results were disappointing: although Gorenhoff sickened, he never truly lapsed into a high fever and after being infected on four occasions, Toth gave up and ordered the patient to be given quinine in order to stop the infection. (This treatment was not again tried until 1917 and was never widely accepted as beneficial by the medical community.)

Toth then moved to an even more extreme form of treatment. Gorenhoff was first administered a huge dose of anaesthetic. He was then taken to a makeshift surgery in Broadmoor, where Toth operated on him, opening his skull and cutting away parts of his cerebral cortex, thereby creating a “gap” in the motor region of the brain that he hoped would break the lines of communication between the deranged and healthy areas of Gorenhoff’s brain.

6f115a3cdac31d8e2dc16f33dbfbbffd--th-century-muscleThis proved the ultimate disaster: as Toth was finalising the operation – and despite the high dosage of anaesthetic – Gorenhoff’s eyes suddenly flickered open. Moments later, he came to full consciousness and sat up.

Due to the risk of infection during the surgical procedure, there were no wardens present in the operating theatre. Those inside were thus doomed. First, Gorenhoff grasped Dr Toth and struck him a blow in the centre of his chest, a blow so terrible it actually broke the ribs away from the sternum.

Then he killed the two doctors that had been aiding Toth in the procedure, breaking the neck of the first and throwing the second to the floor where Gorenhoff punched the man’s head into a bloody pulp so that “naught but a gory smear remained upon the tiled floor”.

So quick and sudden was Gorenhoff’s violence, no alarm was raised. By the time asylum staff became aware of the tragedy, Gorenhoff was gone, having escaped through an opened a window after stripping one of the men of his clothes.

The Conclusion

Gorenhoff’s escape precipitated a wave of panic similar to that which his first escape from the Lazaret on Leperhouse Lane had: roadblocks were established, soldiers and reserve policemen called in to patrol streets; children were kept inside and lone travellers on roads became few and far between.

This time, though, there was no easy capitulation on the part of Gorenhoff – days became weeks, yet no sign of the child-murderer was found.

Mother LudlamNewspapers conjectured that perhaps he had succumbed to an infection due to the wounds from the surgical procedure. The sole credible sighting was of a large, long-limbed man conversing with a hooded woman in the forests close to Mother Ludlam’s cave, outside the town of Farnham and close to the ruins of Waverley Abbey.

That was all, though. To all intents and purposes, Gorenhoff seemed to have disappeared entirely from the world.

As with all newspaper stories, the lack of new information meant the story slowly lost momentum until coverage of it became sporadic.

But the memory of Gorenhoff lingered on. For many years afterwards, his name was linked to the town of Fleet, and the population of the formerly burgeoning town stagnated and did not begin to rise again until the 1930s. Fleet Pond – previously a popular destination for day-trippers from London – became a lonely and desolate place, where the only visitors were anglers, who always came in groups and fished within sight of each other.

With the passage of time, though, the name of Victor Gorenhoff and memory of his deeds, faded from the public consciousness and was eventually forgotten, a fitting denouement perhaps, given that the man had no discernible past: he appeared from nowhere and then returned to nothingness.

The expansion of Fleet – and the consequent extensive building work – has destroyed Leperhouse Lane and the Lazaret where Gorenhoff once lived; and the ruins of the preceptory of the Knights of the Pale Saint disappeared when the RAF Hartford Bridge airbase was hastily established in 1942, as is documented in War Office records of the time – an airfield which gained ill repute after the 1945 Elvetham air crash.

But the woodland on either side of the pond remain a depressing and dreary place at certain times of the year, as trains rattle past behind the barbed wire fences, and cold mists rise from the reeking fenland and stagnant marshes that fester between the bare-branched copses of oaks and silver birches; and algae poisonous to dogs forms on the water’s edge.

Fog on Fleet PondAnd when the wind whistles through the head-high reed beds that surround the pond, it is still possible to imagine Victor Gorehoff fishing from an eyot in the centre of the pond, and a spectral figure rising up from the waters before him, urging him to abduction, murder and mutilation . . .

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