More Options

Midnight Adventure in a Graveyard

Pat Leonard

Skeptical Briefs Volume 10.4, December 2000

For over fifty years I have been a private investigator with a proclivity for checking con men and psychics. The first twenty years were spent with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, Inc., which during most of its existence was the top investigative force in America, if not the world. Founded by Allen Pinkerton in 1848, for many decades Pinkerton’s was the best of its type. Unfortunately, after the last of the family, Robert A. Pinkerton, died over thirty years ago, the officials who then operated the agency concentrated on uniform guard services and finally the original Pinkerton corporation discontinued operations. The name Pinkerton’s is now used by an overseas outfit.

In my years at Pinkerton’s, now and then we were retained to determine the true facts of various “supernatural” cases. One such assignment stands out after all these years.

An enormously wealthy but somewhat eccentric client formed an intense dislike for psychics and fortune tellers when a friend in his dotage was victimized. He had us investigate all those listed as such in the Boston telephone book. The total was twenty-five or thirty, and without exception, every one had a criminal record of some type. Several had outstanding warrants and the various police departments involved had a field day picking up these crooks.

The second case was a remarkable coincidence as I had grown up in the area and as a youth was friendly with one of the principals involved in the scam although he was long dead.

This was mechanical genius Charlie Norton, hired as engineer and supervisor by a promotional group who founded the showplace Knollwood Cemetery in Sharon, Massachusetts, just before 1900. Business flourished until the depression struck America in 1929 and within a year the corporation went bankrupt. Charlie, then over sixty five years old, was all that remained of the many employees who were once busy at Knollwood. He lived in a small cottage on the premises with his wife, who soon died, leaving Charlie alone nearly a half mile from the nearest neighbor.

During the decades Charlie spent at Knollwood, he selected his last resting place and his tombstone. This was a huge, jagged, irregularly shaped rock protruding six feet above the ground. It resembled an object pictured in an illustration of a scene in Dante’s Inferno.

When Charlie died on Saturday, July 10, 1948, at nearly eighty four years old, he was buried beneath this stone on the northeast corner of the Bradford section just across from Canton Street, opposite the main entrance of the present Sharon Memorial Park Cemetery, once again a thriving, well kept place. A bronze plaque was fastened to the stone about four feet above the ground. Vegetation soon began climbing on this grim rock.

For some unknown reason, possibly due to a schoolboy prank based on the weird unearthly appearance of the Norton memorial, rumors began to circulate that the area around this distinctive gravestone at the edge of the woods was haunted by the ghost of old Charlie. A whimsical reporter wrote a tongue-in-cheek article about the doings at Charlie’s grave and this resulted in many midnight excursions of college students from Boston tramping through the cemetery and being a pain to the local police. Soon the bronze plaque disappeared, reportedly to grace the wall of a fraternity house. Then another highly implausible tale was invented; old Charlie was a warlock.

All this foolishness led to a more sinister development.

A prestigious Boston law firm contacted the 294 Washington Street office of Pinkerton’s. A worried attorney advised he had reason to believe one of their valued clients, a wealthy widow of quite mature years and a member of a prominent Yankee family, was being hoodwinked by a woman believed to be a gypsy who had convinced the society grande dame that she was a psychic. The lawyer knew no other details but had been advised by the doddering socialite’s banker that she had made substantial withdrawals recently. Pinkerton’s was retained to check this matter out in a most confidential investigation in order to keep things out of the newspapers. We managed to do so.

At the time I was an agency official and was assigned by the manager, the late Walter W. Martin, a lifelong employee and a Pinkerton’s legend, to handle the case. One of our female operatives, using a “suitable pretext” interviewed the widow and to her surprise was informed that the widow and two dear friends were going to interview her husband in the afterworld, the conduit being the famous warlock, Charlie Norton. (I could not believe my ears!) The meeting would take place at midnight the following Friday at Charlie’s last earthly resting place. Plans were made between Pinkerton’s, the law firm, and the District Attorney’s office.

That Friday evening the late Arthur F. Canzano, the best tail man in the entire agency, and I drove to the cemetery, hid our car in the woods, and concealed ourselves in the trees near Charlie’s stone, looming up in the moonlight and casting a ghastly ominous shadow. It was a very effective backdrop indeed for the coming seance.

About five minutes before midnight, a car drove up, parked, and turned out the headlights. In the fairly clear moonlight, three figures left the vehicle and slowly approached the Norton tombstone. The widow, an aristocratic elderly woman was among them. A garishly dressed, heavily built middle-aged woman, the psychic, was the other. A tall man, the driver of the car, the assistant of the psychic, was the third.

Arriving at Charlie’s plot, the gypsy went into a trance, mumbled incantations in some foreign tongue, and after performing suitable gyrations, she reported to the widow that Charlie had spoken to her long-dead husband who requested the widow to pay an additional $34,000 to the psychic; and on their next visit, the widow would be able - using the psychic as a spiritualistic telephone, to talk directly to her husband in the beyond.

As the society woman fumbled with her handbag, that act triggered decisive action on our part. Arthur sprang out of a nearby clump of shrubbery and grabbed the startled psychic who immediately started cursing in really fluent and obscene English. Arthur advised the widow that the psychic was a common, cheap swindler and he was a Pinkerton man. (The widow later informed her law firm that she initially thought Arthur was old Charlie in person.) The tall lad, a quicker thinker than the swearing psychic, and a pretty good runner, sprinted through the woods towards the railroad tracks at full speed. He tripped and was captured. The trio was taken to the police station where a representative of the District Attorney’s office was summoned and swore out the charges.

Even at the police station the wealthy socialite was not fully convinced the psychic was a crook until she was shown mug shots and scrutinized the extensive criminal record of the gypsy. Her companion, naturally had matching credentials.

(If old Charlie really was in the area he must have had a good laugh!)

Pat Leonard

Pat Leonard is a long-time skeptic and private investigator now living in Massachusetts.