I have previously shared some instances of “coffin threats” in this forum, as well as writing about the lost art of “crape threats” in The Victorian Book of the Dead. Today we look at the early-20th-century version of a gangster intimidating a rival by sending him a funeral wreath.
We can have no conception of how frightening it was to see crape tied to a doorknob or hung from a door knocker. Someone was dead—who was it? How did it happen?
Pish tush! you say. What’s a strip of black cloth tied around the doorknob? How could that possibly be frightening?
We have lost the thread of this deeply symbolic object: the fluttering banner of the Angel of Death. And when crape was tied to a door without a call to the undertaker, everyone shuddered, knowing that it was an omen of ill-will, a malign wish that the fabric of a once-happy home would be torn apart and that crape would shroud a house of death.
That is what drives this story of the Thornley Crape Threat. And not only is there a classic crape threat, the perpetrator may be our old nemesis, The Woman in Black.
TIED CRAPE TO HIS DOOR
Grewsome “Joke” Played on F. J. Mills on the Anniversary of the Death of His Daughter
Special to The Herald.
NEW YORK, Jan. 25.— Frank J. Mills, a decorator, who lives at 563 A Lafayette avenue, Brooklyn, was greatly astonished yesterday morning when his office boy rushed around to the house from Mr. Mills’ place of business in Nostrand avenue, inquiring: who was dead in the family, “Why, what do you mean?” asked the puzzled Mills.
In answer the boy pointed to the handle of Mr. Mills’ doorbell. To his amazement Mills saw hanging from the knob streamers of black and white crepe, such as are used by undertakers to indicate that there has been a death in a house. As there had been no recent death in his family, Mills inquired of Mrs. Amy Thornley, who lives on a lower floor, whether any one in her household had died. She answered in the negative, and Mills began an investigation.
He learned that a man living next door, upon returning home late on the night before, had seen the crepe on Mills’ door and wondered at it. In the morning this neighbor had stopped in at Mr. Mills’ office and asked who was dead in the family. As the office boy had not heard he hurried around to the house to find out.
Mr. Mills said last night that he felt certain the “joke” was not the work of mischievous boy. The crepe had apparently been procured from some undertaker’s shop, but Mills cannot understand, he says, why it was placed on his door. By a peculiar coincidence, it was just a year ago yesterday that Mr. Mills lost a young daughter by death. [Other versions of the story report 3 years and that the dead child was a son.]
Yesterday he offered a reward of $25 for Information which would lead to the arrest and conviction of the persons who perpetrated the “joke.” Los Angeles [CA] Herald 26 January 1906: p. 3
The horrid prank panicked the neighbors.
Edward Laws, who lives next door to No. 563A, was the first to discover the crepe attached to the doorbell of the house of his neighbors, Frank J. Mills and Mrs. Amy Thornley. He was returning home at 11 o’clock on Tuesday night, and as he walked up the front steps of his residence he saw the black and white crepe fluttering in the moonlight at his neighbor’s door. The shock was terrible, he says, for he knows his neighbors intimately. He hurried indoors and woke his wife, who, on hearing that some one had died, wanted immediately to get up and go to her neighbor’s house. They decided, finally, to wait till morning, but they were so worried, they state, that neither slept all night.
Mrs. Thornley lives on the basement floor of the three story dwelling at 563A Lafayette avenue. She says she sat down by her front window about 7 o’clock on Wednesday morning to read the newspapers. She was surprised to notice that neighbors who passed, stopped and stared when they were abreast of her house. Mrs. Thornley was concealed because of the window curtains, and she states that she watched the strange actions of those among the passersby whom she knew for some time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 5 January 1906: p. 1
Enter the Woman in Black….
WOMAN-IN-BLACK WRITES “I LOVE YOUR HUSBAND”
“Murder for You” the Beginning of Her Letter to Mrs. Amy Thornley.
MYSTERY OF CRAPE ON A DOOR.
Weird Woman Chalks Insults on Stone Steps and Hides Notes in Graveyard Flowers—A New Advertisement.
Following with startling promptness upon the appearance in Friday’s Eagle of the advertisement in which a reward of $25 is offered for the “arrest and conviction of the fiend who placed black and white crape on doorbell at house 365A Lafayette avenue, Wednesday, January 3,” was the receipt yesterday by Mrs. Amy Thornley, one of the occupants of the house, of an anonymous letter, in which murder is threatened. Beside Mrs. Thornley and her family, Frank J. Mills, a painter and decorator of the Bedford section, lives there. The letter is particular to state that the crape was intended as a warning to Mrs. Thornley and was not for Mr. Mills and expresses the wish that ‘she may soon be sleeping by the side of her son,” who died five years ago. The peculiarity of this letter is the fact that it is composed of words cut from a copy of the Eagle, the words placed in such order as to form sentences. Several of the words are emphasized by being composed of letters cut from the headlines of the newspaper. The letter follows;
“MURDER for you. Crape is for Amy T., not for Mills. May you soon be sleeping with your dead son. Your husband will be MINE. I LOVE HIM.”
The envelope in which the communication was received is postmarked “Station B. 1 P.M., Jan. 8.” Post Office Substation B. is at 1266 Fulton street, near Nostrand avenue.
The last sentence of the letter is now considered by both Mrs. Thornley and Mr. Mills to shed some light upon the question of motive, and there is no doubt in the minds of either that the perpetrator is a woman. In fact, Mr. Mills has seen the woman several times, and under curious circumstances. Up to the present, both Mrs. Thornley and Mr. Mills have been somewhat reticent in regard to the matter of the mysterious woman, whose threatening letters have been an annoyance for the past five years. Not only have the missives been used as the means of expressing threats, but threats and abuse have occasionally appeared in words chalked upon the cement floor of the areaway leading into the basement of Mrs. Thornley’s house, and couched in terms that often were too vile to bear repeating.
Acting immediately upon the receipt of this last letter, because of its significance in connection with the story published in last Friday’s Eagle of the appearance of the crape. Mrs. Thornley turned the communication over to Mr. Mills, who in to-day’s issue again repeats his offer of reward, adding an extra clause having reference to the letter.
“Twenty-five dollars reward for the arrest and conviction of the fiend who placed black and white crape on doorbell at house, 563 Lafayette avenue, Wednesday, January3. Also for person who sent anonymous letter, mailed Monday, January 8, in reference to same. Address Mrs. Amy Thornley, Frank J. Mills.”
According to the story told the Eagle reporter last night by Mr. Mills and Mrs. Thornley, the mysterious woman whom they believe to be responsible for all the ghostly threats and jokes which they have endured for several years has been clever enough to elude many attempts to catch her.
The “mysterious woman in black,” Mr. Mills calls her, for he describes her as dressed entirely in black, wearing a black hat wrapped in a veil which drapes down over her face. She is of medium height. She has been seen by Mr. Mills at night as she has stepped into the little yard in front of the house and thrown a note into the areaway leading to the basement door, and although he has rushed to the door in order to catch her in the act, he has opened the door upon a vacant yard and a deserted street.
She has never appeared by daylight. Under cover of darkness, she has crept into the little yard, chalked her messages upon the cement sidewalk there; left her threatening notes upon the window sill or poked them under the door, and lastly, hung the real undertaker’s badge of the house of death upon the doorbell.
“Following the death of my son five years ago,” said Mrs. Thornley last night, “I received so many insulting and threatening letters that I finally turned them over to the police for investigation. Nothing was learned, however, and the annoyance continued. I could not visit my son’s grave in Evergreens Cemetery, but what I would find a note among the flowers or upon the headstone. Only a month ago, I was sitting here in the dining room late one evening when there came a sudden rapping at the window. I knew instantly that it must be the woman in black. I rushed to the door, for I am neither timid nor superstitious, but there was nothing to be seen.”
Mr. Mills is a deputy sheriff and a member of the Citizens’ Protective League. He has determined that he will clear up the mystery even if he has to give up considerable of his time in the effort. His stories substantiate those told by Mrs. Thornley in every particular. He has sat for hours at the parlor window, which looks directly out upon the street, in wait for the “woman in black. Once, late at night, he saw the woman approach the house from across the street after having entered the block from Nostrand avenue, which is 200 feet from No. 563A. The dark figure crossed to the gate leading into the front yard, opened it, and then tossed a note upon the steps leading into the areaway. Mr. Mills rushed to the door and down the front steps to the street. He had seen the woman run toward Nostrand avenue, and she must be fleet of foot, he says, for she had turned the corner by the time he had reached the sidewalk.
On other occasions, Mr. Mills has stationed himself in the vestibule of the front door, but at these times the woman has failed to appear. Mrs. Thornley’s son, Frederick, has also taken his turn at watching.
Mrs. Thornley’s husband is a traveling salesman, and is at home but for a few days at a time. He is not a home at present, but Mrs. Thornley says she knows that he is as much in the dark as she as to the identity of the woman whose reason for the criminal annoyances of the five years has been jealousy of his love. Pending the result of the efforts of Mr. Mills to detect the “mysterious woman in black,” Mrs. Thornley says she expects to receive further threats from that party as a reply to this published account of her doings. The Brooklyn [NY] Daily Eagle 10 January 1906: p. 1
This article reveals the unsettling details that the persecution had been going on much longer than a few days and that Mrs. Thornley thought her son’s body had been tampered with at the cemetery.
Mrs. Thornley is a well-preserved woman with auburn hair and strong features. She was born in France and lived there most of her life.
Her husband, she says, is a traveling salesman for a German importing house in Manhattan and has been with them for twenty-two years. Her husband, she said, was in the South on a business trip, had been gone three months and was not expected home for some time. She said he did not seem much worried over the case.
“My troubles began,” she said last night, “when I buried my sixteen year [old] son [Percy] in Evergreens Cemetery, five years ago. Some weeks later, when I visited the vault, I found my son’s body had been shifted to the top tier. The attendants denied all knowledge of it. Six months later I began to get threatening letters in a woman’s hand. She said she loved my husband and wanted him.
“Several times at night when I was watching at the window, a medium-sized woman in black, with a veil, slipped in the yard and flung a letter on the grass or the stoop. No matter how quick I was in getting to the door, she was always out of sight. [This is so like Mills’s statement, it almost sounds like they compared notes—or colluded?]
“When I would visit my son’s grave I often found notes from the woman pinned to the flowers I had placed there. They were all threatening. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 20 January 1906: p. 3
Just as I was beginning to put Mrs. Thornley down as a trifle unbalanced, another witness saw the Woman in Black.
SAW THE WOMAN IN BLACK
But Young John Weiss Was Too Much Surprised, Maybe Frightened, to Grab Her.
The mysterious woman in black has been seen again. She appeared on Nostrand avenue early last evening, but disappeared so quickly that some people in the neighborhood are beginning to believe in ghosts. John Weiss, it was, who saw the woman this time. He is 17 years old, and works in the office of Frank J. Mills at 302 Nostrand avenue, who lives with the family of Mrs. Amy Thornley, at 563a Lafayette avenue. Mrs. Thornley is bearing up well, despite the nervous shock following the hanging of crepe upon her doorbell and the anonymous letter of Tuesday, in which murder is threatened.
Mr. Mills left his office, which is around the corner from The Thornley house at 5:30 yesterday afternoon .John Weiss remained at the office. About 6 o’clock, John saw a dark figure passing to and fro on the sidewalk in front of the office. His heart jumped into his throat, he says. Four times the woman passed the door, each time pausing in front of it and looking in. On the last round, however, she came up to the door, crouched down in front of it, John says, and with her hand shading her eyes, glared searchingly through the glass of the door into the office.
John doesn’t know now why it was that he did not rush out and grab the woman. He says he wishes now that he had. For some reason, John says, he was unable to move. The eyes of the woman-in-black transfixed him for the moment. When he came to she was gone.
John went around to No. 563a and told Mr. Mills, who notified the nearest policeman. The Brooklyn [NY] Daily Eagle 12 January 1906: p. 2
How many people saw the crape-hanger? Only Mills, the office boy, and Mrs. Thornley? Is there a possibility that the Woman in Black who so transfixed young Weiss was Mrs. Thornley in disguise, seeking to bolster her credibility? The article is ambiguous about whether he actually saw her face. There were conflicting reports over whether Mills saw her only once or several times.
Let us look a little more closely at the main actors in this enigmatic story. Initially I thought that the perpetrator might have been the estranged Mrs. Mills, or that it might have been a cry for help from a lonely wife whose husband was away for months at a time. Other than these articles, very little is found in the papers about Mrs. Thornley, except her husband’s obituary in August, 1925 and her own in December of 1926.
However there is much to learn about the other occupant of the house, Mr. Mills.
Frank J. Mills, described as a “decorator” – a painter, separated from his wife Maria in 1899. He later became a real estate broker and was involved in local politics. In 1900 he complained to the police about a man named Weil, who had represented himself as selling advertising for a weekly paper, but who had taken Mills’ money without placing the ad Mills had ordered. Weil was arraigned for petit larceny, but was released on bail and committed suicide by swallowing acid.
In 1903 Mills is described in an article about the Law and Order League—a citizens’ patrol organization–as “one of the mildest mannered men that ever tooted a police whistle. There is a shrinking modesty about the man that it seems impossible to associate with the custody of handcuffs or the possession of a night stick. But he is valorous, too having served a spell in the Forty-seventh Regiment, and seen service with that command in Porto Rico.” In this article Mills and a colleague were ridiculed for supposedly putting rowdy people off streetcars. [The Brooklyn [NY] Daily Eagle 14 September 1903: p. 20]
In February of 1906, Mills mysteriously lost $1,550 and his bank book. He went to a theatre to “transact a little business” and thence to the bank where he discovered his loss. In September of that same year, it was reported in The Brooklyn Eagle that Mills claimed that he saved two young ladies from drowning at the Parkaway Baths—a swimming pool. A few days later Parkaway Baths Superintendent Phelan wrote and said that Mills had nothing to do with the rescue. The Eagle rather testily noted that they had just printed what Mills had told them about the incident.
In March of 1907, while Mills was described as living with his wife, Mills’s pregnant dog, Bess, “a brindle bull valued at $150,” was mysteriously stolen by burglars who did not bother to steal valuable jewelry lying in plain sight. The dog’s collar was left in the Mills’s trash can as if to taunt the couple. In short, Mills was a man to whom things happened.
Mrs. Thornley, with the years of threatening letters ignored by her husband and the police and her belief that her son’s body had been moved suggests a similar model of weird episodes. What, if anything, this means, I’ve no clue.
The same pattern pops up as a minor theme in phantom attacker stories, as well as in the lives of troubled polt vectors: chaotic lives, odd incidents, domestic infelicity–and frequent mentions in the papers. In a chapter in The Face in the Window called “The Death Bed Promise,” a dying Simon Fisher forced his wife Linnie to promise to never marry her lover, Walter. She broke this promise within a scandalously short time and was repaid by visits from Simon’s threatening ghost. Swirling in the wake of this story were dozens of news items in the small-town paper about peripheral characters– children and siblings—involved in unsolved mystery threats, beatings and disappearances. It was like an on-going soap opera and I didn’t even tell the whole of it. Is there some common thread in the chaos of disordered lives that generates bizarre fortean stories?
In an unpublished story from my files of a phantom attacker of a young woman, the multiple newspaper articles about her unhappy life and her persecution at the hands of a mystery assailant grew more dire and ambiguous with each day. Like so many similar fortean tales, that phantom attacker story simply disappeared from the media without resolution—just as the Thornley Crape Threat Case seemed to have come to an abrupt end with no corpse to validate the crape–and no Woman in mournful Black.
It is such a minor mystery although it received much coverage in its day. I am not sure why I care so much about a defunct tradition of textile intimidation. But if you have other sources that reveal the culprit or the motive, I’d be pleased to hear from you. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Side notes of no real relevance: In the censuses, Mr. and Mrs. Thornley are described as “aliens.” (non-citizens.) The house where all this occurred is still standing.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.