"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Wackos, Crazies, And The Demented–How Boring Life Would Be Without Them

Imelda Figgins made dolls from scratch. She made her own heads from plaster molds, bought standard plastic bodies, and made all the doll clothes. She had made dolls of Clark Gable (as Rhett Butler), George W. Bush, Jefferson Davis, and Jose Marti; copies of Barbie and the Cabbage Patch kids; and her own variations of religious figures – Jesus as a cowboy and Peter as a bass fisherman with a miniature fly rod and bass boat. Her main interest, however, was portrait dolls – people would sit for her, and she would make little replicas of them. She would cast the head, paint the eyes, give the cheeks color, and tailor the clothes.

Despite all the attention and care she put into the dolls, few people actually bought them. She never got the proportions right and there was always something deformed and gnome-like about the bodies. While the faces were recognizable, they all came out with creepy vacant stares. They were more like totems or voodoo dolls than kind resemblances, and when people saw them, the found some excuse not to take them. Imelda didn’t need the money, so she never objected, and displayed the dolls throughout the house. There were creepy dolls on the bannister, sitting in the Victorian chairs in the parlor, and even propped up on chairs in the breakfast nook.

Imelda began to turn out dolls that were creepier and creepier. People stopped coming in for sittings, and she began to make her own dolls that were weird replicas of people in the city. She did a very accurate depiction of Mrs. Wentworth, the grande dame of the town. She dressed her in the vaguely Victorian clothes she wore, meticulously reproduced her silvery hairdo; but made her face morbid and frightened as though she had just heard the Angel of Death. She made one of Mrs. Corning, the Chairwoman of Pilgrimage that looked like a Francis Bacon painting – scary teeth, and all her other features scrambled up but somehow looking like her.

Bert told me that these dolls were keeping people away, especially since she had started making them larger and more lifelike. She had worked out a way to stiffen them up and pose them in various places in the house. She stood the Mayor on the top step of the front stairs and when anyone came in the front door, they could see a ghoulish zombie looking exactly like Henry Creighton taking his first step towards them.

Everyone in Natchez except Bert saw that Imelda was going around the bend, and if he didn’t watch out she would go to ‘the place of no return’, the scary institution on the top of Jefferson Hill to which many mentally deranged sons and daughters of Mississippi had been committed.

Potter Phelps was unbalanced even as a small child. He used to pull wings off of fireflies, stick them to his chest, and run around the yard naked yelling, “I can fly! I can fly!”.

The child psychologist consulted at the request of school administrators tried to reassure the Phelps family that their son was simply going through a growing phase. “A rather creative one”, she went on. “Looked at from an artist’s point of view, the firefly necklace represents a unique and distinctive imagination and sense of creative license.”

“Nonsense”, thought Potter’s father, remembering the twitching of the helpless insects as his son dismembered them slowly, wing by wing until their light pulsations became frenetic.  Before he stuck them to his chest, he put them on the kitchen table and watched their St. Vitus’ dance with glee. “Look at them squirm!”, shouted little Potter; and after their luminescence faded, the boy put them back on the table, and just before their lights went out, he squished them under his thumb. “Happy trails”, said the little boy who loved old Roy Rogers movies.

St. Vitus' dance

“What is it with animals?”, his father asked.

One day he found Potter in the garage electrocuting frogs. He had taken his Lionel train transformer – the extra powerful one he had given the boy for Christmas to pull long lines of loaded toy freight cars up hills – and hooked the wires to the bullfrogs he had fished out of the pond behind the firehouse.  “Die”, Potter shouted. “Die”, he yelled as he turned up the juice and watched the frog’s legs jump and contract.

“This is a good sign, actually”, said the child psychologist. “Potter is dealing with issues of life, death, and mortality far beyond his years.”

Potter’s erratic behavior extended far beyond the torture of animals. He shat in the neighbor’s bushes, let the air out of the new Buick Roadmaster Atty. Jacobs proudly parked in his driveway, and cut the clotheslines of every house from one end of Lincoln Street to the other. Of course everyone in the West End knew exactly who did it; and many of them went to the Harold Phelps to complain.  Unlike most fathers, he did not automatically defend his son, but said, “Nasty little bugger. We have no idea what to do with him.”

Father Brophy admitted to his fellow priests at St. Maurice Church that he was concerned about the boy ‘for spiritual reasons’.  Potter seemed to have none of the moral inhibitors usually found in a child of his age, and if nothing was done to right him, his soul would fall increasingly far from God. “He’s still young”, said the priest, “barely at the age of reason; but he shows no signs of moral rectitude. I hate to bring up Nietzsche, but the boy already seems beyond good and evil.”


As time went on, all of these fears turned out to be unfounded. Potter was simply crazy. Wires got crossed somewhere, bits and pieces of DNA ended up where they shouldn’t be, his endocrine system pumped out the wrong emotional lubricants, and Potter couldn’t make heads nor tails of the world around him. He was befuddled and perplexed, had no sense of propriety, compassion, trust, or obligation. Blowing snot on the boys room mirror because “it looked cool under fluorescent lighting” was equal in value to him as kissing his mother goodnight.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Potter reached adulthood during a time of relaxed and tolerant views of the mentally ill.  Patients like Potter who should have been locked up in the an institution were allowed to roam free on the streets. “They belong under the big tent, just like any other American”, said one of the progressive advocates for the homeless, “and if they have their peculiarities, so do we all.”

Every city has its own toned-down version of the weird and unexplainable – its hermits, its morbidly obese; its dumb, clueless, and ugly; and its flashers.  They are nothing, however, compared to those imaginary deformed, those ordinary neighbors transformed by gossip, innuendo, rumor, and one unfortunate miscue into fantastical freaks.

Emma Sandstrom’s suicide which had only been rumored had become a ghoulish affair where she had hanged herself with lamp cord in the basement or turned a mottled reddish blue from asphyxiation in her gas range or cut her wrists in the bathtub which she had filled with bubbles and lavender scent or eaten rat poison, and consumed with thirst was found head first in the toilet bowl.

The ‘truth’ never came out.   None of the suspicions had any real merit or foundation.  She could have died peacefully in her bed or felled by a stroke; but the rumors of suicide persisted because of her eccentric behavior.  No one in New Brighton ever dressed in funereal veils and Victorian shoes when shopping downtown or drove like she did  around the block three times before pulling the car into the driveway. Her bedroom lights were often on at 3am, shouts and cries could be heard after dinner coming from the basement well, and no one ever came to visit. Put all together her untimely death at age 45 could only add up to suicide, a combination of a deranged mind, a wayward husband, and a ne’er-do-well son. The obituary in the New Brighton Examiner provided no clues.

Emma Sandstrom, beloved wife of Herbert R. Sandstrom, Chief Accountant and Deputy Financial Officer of New Brighton Savings and Loan, mother of Bertrand S. Sandstrom, and daughter of Mrs. and Mrs. Per Carlson of Bayonne, New Jersey, died yesterday peaceful at home. Flowers and condolences may be sent to Pederson Funeral Home in New Brighton.

Bailey Cross lived in an old Victorian mansion on one of the formerly most elegant streets in New Brighton, long gone to seed as wealthy families left the old, fast decaying rust belt city for the tonier and classier communities of Farmington, Avon, and West Hartford. He had lived there for decades, and for as long as anyone could remember.  The old folks told of a handsome, Tyrone Power lookalike who had moved into the mansion with his young family in the 30s, and lived alone after all of them had died.  Rumors persisted that he had murdered them all; but the police found no trace of any foul play, and when they had been called by a neighbor who heard ghastly cries, sobs, and unearthly shrieks, they found only Bailey, his clothes torn to shreds, his face scored with deep scratches, howling and wandering from room to room.

Image result for images spooky victorian houses

His family never was found, invisible as ghosts, and Bailey, already as mad as a hatter because of his vixenous wife – a true harridan if there ever was one (stories of her upbringing in a watery, boggy corner of the West of Ireland and her run through husbands in both Ireland and New England emasculating each and every one were well-known) – went completely insane when she and her equally evil children set off for parts unknown.  He could be seen every evening, peering from a dormer window, dressed in a nightshirt and holding a candle as identically Old London as any character in Dickens.  No one saw him come or go, the front door was never opened, and food was delivered down the old, unused coal chute.

Something to think about as we all go about our days – routine, predictable, only occasionally interrupted by unfortunate circumstance, but generally OK, doable, nothing exciting but nothing devastating, a life of minor issues – while somewhere, everywhere is someone off his rocker, often shuttered and behind closed doors but still there. The thumps and howls from the Glover’s basement were signs of something.  Rumor had it that they had locked their daughter in the boiler room, but there was enough glass in the half window for her to expose herself to the train of boys who came to look.  Nothing could stop sluttish behavior, they came to realize, but Newington wouldn’t take her; for in the days of mental release no institutions were taking new patients, let alone a girls whose promiscuity was not a personal illness but a parental miscreancy.

Just down the street from normal people whose basements were rec rooms. 

Nutty people keep us honest, not by giving warning to what might come our way, but to show us that not everything is straight lines and squares nor should be.  God forbid we should go as far off the rails as Imelda Figgins, but just once or twice in a lifetime it might feel good.

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